Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles

It seems that audiences now expect film festivals to be road shows of the latest and greatest in independent, art house, and foreign cinema rather than an opportunity to discover work not yet buzzed about. This year’s Chicago European Union Film Festival lineup has plenty of the latter, and the chance to discover new films and filmmakers makes perusing the schedule all the more exciting.

All of the European Union’s 28 member states are represented in the festival’s 22nd iteration, which includes 60 films in total, ranging from narrative to documentary to animated features. Twenty-two of the 60 films are helmed by women, accounting for more than 30 percent of the schedule. Per usual, the lineup is a healthy mix of the biggest names in European cinema and relative unknowns, making the festival a great opportunity not just to catch up with major auteurs but to discover filmmakers whose work might be unfamiliar to U.S. audiences.

First, the heavy heavy hitters. Loro is the latest by Italian writer-director Paolo Sorrentino, whose The Great Beauty won the best foreign-language film Oscar a few years back. It’s a fiction film about former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and his sleazy inner circle; originally released in Italy in two parts, the international cut is just a single film. Not available for preview, its trailer gives off Wolf of Wall Street vibes, vulgar platitudes of the privileged uttered like sordid catechisms.

French provocateur Bruno Dumont follows up his 2014 miniseries Li’l Quinquin (which played at CEUFF that year—his most recent achievements, Slack Bay, from 2016, and last year’s exceptionally absurd Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc also played in recent lineups) with Coincoin and the Extra-Humans, another miniseries cum cinematic experience that again finds its young and peculiar protagonist in ludicrous scenarios, this time involving alien cow patties and strangely gestated doppelgangers. Dumont’s droll absurdity is matched by deceptively halcyon widescreen compositions that further elucidate his wacky ambitions.

Polish master Krzysztof Zanussi, whose works from the 70s and 80s are among the greatest Polish films ever made, again foregrounds his preoccupation with faith in Ether, a Faustian historical drama in which the anesthetic, here in the hands of an amoral doctor, serves as a metaphor for both power and pain, specifically the ability to either exacerbate or alleviate the latter. Like many of Zanussi’s recent films, it’s a bit ham-fisted, especially in how it incorporates the Faustian elements. Still, it’s confidently realized, and worth watching for anyone who hopes to catch a glimpse of Zanussi’s erstwhile genius.

The documentary selection features a trove of films from directors both well-known and those less so. The former category includes Mark Cousins’s The Eyes of Orson Welles (UK), an examination of an oft-overlooked facet of Welles’s life, his interest in drawing and painting; Peter Lataster and Petra Lataster-Czisch’s You Are My Friend (Netherlands), an unassuming follow-up to their popular 2016 documentary Miss Kiet’s Children, about a teacher and her immigrant students, this time focusing on just one of the previous film’s young subjects; Ruth Beckermann’s The Waldheim Waltz (Austria), a smartly edited examination of the Waldheim affair that includes footage Beckermann shot during the mid-80s protests against the Austrian president who was alleged to have participated in Nazi war crimes during World War II; and Corneliu Porumboiu’s Infinite Football (Romania), which is idiosyncratic in its portrayal of a middle-aged man whose football injury inspired him to amend the rules of the sport, the discussion of which inspires near-philosophical discourse on a range of subjects.

Lesser-known documentary gems include Donal Foreman’s The Image You Missed (Ireland-France), credited as a film “between” Foreman and his estranged father, documentary filmmaker Arthur MacCaig; Robert Bahar and Almudena Carracedo’s The Silence of Others (Spain-USA), produced by Pedro Almodóvar, about some of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco’s victims seeking justice for crimes committed under his rule; Niels Bolbrinker and Thomas Tielsch’s Bauhaus Spirit: 100 Years of Bauhaus (Germany), a comprehensive look at the title subject; Giacomo Durzi’s Ferrante Fever (Italy), about Elena Ferrante, the elusive author of the much-lauded Neapolitan novels; and James Erskine’s The Ice King (UK), an elegantly heartbreaking portrait of acclaimed British figure skater John Curry, openly gay when it was still illegal to be so, whose fortitude on and off the rink is especially moving.

The narrative offerings are where female filmmakers really shine. Standouts are Valeria Bruni Tedeschi’s The Summer House (Italy-France), Jagoda Szelc’s Tower. A Bright Day., Adina Pintilie’s Touch Me Not (Romania-Germany), Iveta Grofova’s Little Harbor (Slovakia-Czech Republic), Gabriela Pichler’s Amateurs (Sweden), Liina Trishkina- Vanhatalo’s Take It or Leave It (Estonia), and Carmel Winters’s Float Like a Butterfly (Ireland). Two first-time feature directors, Moonika Siimets and Marine Francen, make imposing if somewhat wonted period dramas that embody their native countries. Siimets’s The Little Comrade is based on the childhood of noted Estonian writer Leelo Tungal and features an astonishing performance by Helena Maria Reisner as young Leelo. Francen’s The Sower (France), based on real events, is about a village whose men are all arrested in the wake of Louis Napoleon’s 1851 coup, leaving the women without male companions for two years; they agree that if a man should come to them, they’ll share him for both labor and sex. Beautifully rendered, its love scenes are refreshingly sensual.

As is the case with any large festival, some films fall short. The Saint Bernard Syndicate (Denmark), the first narrative feature from controversial documentarian Mads Brügger, is so intentionally unwieldy as to be artless, while Lars Kraume’s The Silent Revolution (Germany), about a protest by East German students in solidarity with the victims of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, proves that not every political protest is worthy of a dramatization. Judith Davis’s Whatever Happened to My Revolution (France), a portrait of a young woman with no outlet for her righteous indignation, doesn’t succeed as any sort of commentary, and Ray & Liz, from British photographer Richard Billingham, an autobiographical story of a family on the dole in Thatcher-era England, is visually stunning but more an idea than a film. It remains to be seen whether Louis Garrel—whose second directorial feature, A Faithful Man (France), is playing in the festival—will live up to his father’s reputation, though its title certainly recalls those of Philippe’s recent masterpieces (Lover for a Day, Regular Lovers).

Two animated features, Salvador Simó’s Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles (Spain), about a turning point in the surrealist director’s prodigious career, and Raúl de la Fuente and Damian Nenow’s Another Day of Life (Poland-Spain), reminiscent of Waltz With Bashir in its exploration of Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski’s experiences during the 1975 Angolan civil war, round out an eclectic program. There’s much to catch up with, but there’s also much to discover, with even more in store for those up to the task.   v