Over the past 15 years, the European Union Film Festival has become an increasingly valuable lifeline to Chicago-area cinephiles. This unique festival, hosted each year by the Gene Siskel Film Center, offers a diverse selection of new movies from all 27 E.U. countries, virtually all of which are local premieres. It is the best and in many cases only chance Chicagoans will have to catch many of these films on the big screen before they head to their eventual resting place of DVD/blu-ray/online streaming. (Two of my very favorite films to receive Chicago premieres in 2011, The Strange Case of Angelica and Change Nothing, only played theatrically at the E.U. Film Festival and never returned for a regular week-long run anywhere locally at all.) So this year I decided to buy a festival pass and take in more screenings than ever before, which included taking my History of Cinema class from Harold Washington College on a field trip to one of the movies. Below is my report card for the fest with capsule reviews of all five of the films that I saw.
Aita (de Orbe, Spain, 2010)
Grade: A- / 8.6
A centuries-old decaying mansion is the metaphor-rich central location of this fascinating experimental film by Spanish director Jose Maria de Orbe. The house is the site of excavations, restorations, break-ins and a field trip for elementary school children. All the while, the elderly caretaker who lives on the premises engages a priest from the church next door in a series of philosophical conversations. Late at night, images of what looks badly decayed nitrate film are projected on the mansion’s interior walls, evoking the notion that this location is a repository for hundreds of years worth of fading, ghostly memories. A profound meditation on history, cinema, life and death, and a reminder in our digital age of the extreme beauty that can still only result from the marriage of 35mm film and natural light.
Sleeping Sickness (Köhler, Germany, 2011)
Grade: A- / 8.0
Ebbo Velten is a white German doctor appointed by the World Health Organization to combat the title disease in Cameroon. After a series of languidly paced, vaguely unsettling scenes, most of which subtly illustrate the doctor’s condescending attitude towards the locals, the film unexpectedly jumps forward three years in time and shifts its narrative focus to Alex Nzila, a French-born doctor of African descent, sent by the W.H.O. to prepare a report on Velten’s clinic. This powerful, naturalistic drama evokes Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in its portrait of a white man “gone native” but writer/director Ulrich Kohler’s disturbing tale of neocolonialism could have ultimately only been made in the 21st century; the way he masterfully pushes his story in elliptical, consistently surprising directions is likely to make viewers feel as profoundly disoriented as his characters.
The Phantom Father (Georgescu, Romania, 2011)
Grade: B+ / 7.8
The Siskel Center scored a major coup by hosting the U.S. premiere of this new Romanian film by first time feature director Lucian Georgescu based on a short story by American author Barry Gifford (Wild at Heart). The plot details the misadventures of an American professor who travels to Romania to find out information about his father’s mysterious heritage. Along the way he encounters love with a government bureaucrat in a refreshingly sweet, quirky and warm-hearted shaggy dog story that freely mixes the real with the fantastical. This uncommonly assured debut is about a million miles away from the social realism of the so-called “Romanian New Wave” and marks Georgescu as a definite talent to watch.
Madly in Love (Van Mieghem, Belgium, 2010)
Grade: B- / 6.5
Writer/director Hilde Van Mieghem is known as the “first lady of Flemish cinema” and, though I was unfamiliar with her work before my wife chose to see this film based on the Siskel Center’s catalog description, I’m now curious to fill in on what I’ve missed. Madly in Love is a contrived but also witty, visually inventive and very female-centric romantic comedy from Belgium about the love lives of four women: the beautiful, middle-aged actress Judith Miller, her two precocious children, Eva and Michelle, and their promiscuous aunt Barbara. The central idea informing each of the stories here is that true love is only possible after a lot of searching and mistake-making, a refreshing rejoinder to the more puritanical rom-coms coming out of Hollywood. This whimsical concoction features winning performances by an attractive cast and makes contemporary Antwerp look like a fun and quirky place to live.
Tuesday (Kornilios, Greece, 2010)
Grade: D / 4.2
Mike Leigh meets Robert Altman in this low-budget digitally-shot Greek indie, although the end result is much less interesting than that description probably makes it sound. Writer/director Nikos Kornilios supposedly based his screenplay on intensive improv workshops conducted with his actors, and it shows in the worst possible sense: the end result is a typical “web of life” plot mostly revolving around the romantic entanglements of young Athenians where it feels as if the actors had the burden of coming up with their own unmemorable dialogue. In this structurally messy scenario, there are just too many characters, none of whom we learn enough about, other than the fact that they’re having sex, or not having sex, and all crying way, way, way too much.