The 17th edition of the Gene Siskel Film Center’s European Union Film Festival kicks off this Friday, March 7, and runs through April 3rd. While the 2014 EU Film Fest may lack the brand-name auteurs of last year’s edition (e.g., Resnais, Bellocchio, Von Trotta, etc.), it more than makes up for it with a significant number of substantial works by exciting younger directors, some of whom are represented by their first features (including Ramon Zurcher’s astonishing The Strange Little Cat, my favorite film of the entire festival). There are extra credit opportunities available for my students if they attend any of the EU Film Fest screenings. Please see the extra credit page of your course website for more details. The full lineup (along with ticket info and showtimes) can be found here:
Below are previews for four of the most noteworthy films playing in the festival’s first week. I will be including previews of four more titles next week as well.
Child’s Pose (Netzer, Romania, 2013)
Winner of the Golden Bear at the 2013 Berlin Film Festival, Calin Peter Netzer’s take on the intersection of familial love and thorny moral choices plays at times like a parody of a Romanian New Wave movie: there’s a tragic inciting event, unusually jittery camerawork, extreme realism in the dialogue and acting departments, a complete absence of non-diegetic music, and an almost clinical examination of bureaucratic processes. The tragedy revolves around an elderly mother’s attempts to prevent her ungrateful son from being charged with manslaughter after he is responsible for a car accident that kills a pedestrian. The scenario is sufficiently complex and intelligent, and Luminita Gheorghiu gives a tour de force performance as the domineering mother, but Netzer’s style of shooting and cutting is overly busy at best and visually sloppy at worst: his handheld camera continually jumps back and forth across the 180-degree axis, even during basic dialogue scenes, robbing his film of a coherent sense of place and sapping the drama of its power. I should point out that the greatest of the contemporary Romanian directors, Corneliu Porumboiu, is also represented in this festival with his When Evening Falls On Bucharest or Metabolism; alas, I had not yet seen it as of press time. Child’s Pose screens on Saturday, March 8.
The Strange Little Cat (Zurcher, Germany, 2013)
Impossible to accurately describe, the strikingly original and primarily non-narrative The Strangle Little Cat is the best German film I’ve seen in years. This is the kind of movie that has no stars, no name director and no trendy subject matter, yet is destined to win a large cult of fans based solely on word of mouth in regards to how amazing it is as a piece of filmmaking. The members of an extended family gather together in an apartment and, over the course of a single day, engage in various activities: fixing a washing machine, conducting an experiment with orange peels, sharing a meal, etc. Like a miniature version of Jacques Tati’s Playtime, however, this movie is really about space and time, order and chaos, images and sounds, and the relationships between people and objects. Everything seems precisely choreographed yet elements of chance undoubtedly come into play, especially where the family’s cat and dog (the ultimate non-actors) are concerned. Several of the characters tell mundane stories, like one where a woman describes a man accidentally touching her foot with his in a movie theater, that are then illustrated by flashback sequences — even though nothing about these stories seems momentous enough to warrant the use of the flashback technique. This in and of itself becomes hilarious, and strangely poignant, like much of the rest of the film. A deceptively intimate masterpiece of cosmic wonder, The Strange Little Cat screens on Saturday, March 8 and Wednesday, March 12.
What Now? Remind Me (Pinto, Portugal, 2013)
Director Joaquin Pinto, a former associate of Manoel de Olveira and Raul Ruiz, trained an intimate digital camera on himself and his partner Nuno Leonel for an entire year. The result is this formidable essay film in the vein of Chris Marker that also functions as a testament to the continuing importance of Portuguese art cinema. Pinto’s main subject is his experience taking experimental drugs designed to combat HIV and Hepatitis C, both of with he has been living with for decades. Along the way, Pinto provides poetic and philosophical reflections via voice-over narration to accompany scenes of him and Leonel visiting the hospital, playing with their dogs, working on their farm and even making love. A good example of Pinto’s wit and broad frame of reference can be found in a scene where he’s exploring a cave and intones that “We are living through sad times. In the shadow of the Flintstones, and of a doctor obsessed with the sexuality of the Viennese bourgeoisie.” The most moving aspect of this doc, however, is the use of insert shots of insects and animals (a yellow jacket eating a hamburger, a dragonfly at rest, a slug crawling through the mud, a bee expiring), all of which underscore the theme of the ephemeral nature of existence. Having said all that, I’m not sure the two hour and 44 minute running time is entirely justified. What Now? Remind Me screens on Saturday, March 8 and Wednesday, March 12.
Ida (Pawlikowski, Poland, 2013)
Ida, the first movie I’ve seen by the well-regarded Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski, piqued my interest mainly because of the truckload of awards it took home from last year’s film festival circuit (including the prestigious FIPRESCI International Critics Award in Toronto). It’s a good movie but I don’t think it’s quite as good as its reputation suggests. On the plus side, the black-and-white cinematography is austerely beautiful, the performances are uniformly excellent and John Coltrane figures prominently on the soundtrack. On the other hand, the original screenplay (written by Pawlikowski and Rebecca Lenkiewicz) recycles a lot of ideas familiar from other European art films: the novitiate nun who questions her resolve on the eve before taking her vows, an investigation into a family history shrouded in secrecy, the revelation of shocking war crimes related to the Nazi Occupation, etc. This is well done for what it is and will probably reward those with a vested interest in the subject matter; just don’t expect anything that feels particularly vital or new. Ida screens on Sunday, March 9 and Wednesday, March 12.
March 6th, 2014 at 4:07 pm
Since I have not seen any of these films yet. I can not really comment, but I will focus on The Strange Little Cat. Judging by the way it sounds, it does seem like a miniature sized version of Playtime thematically. Keep up the great work:)
March 6th, 2014 at 6:23 pm
Thanks, John. You can see the trailer for THE STRANGE LITTLE CAT here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RKiUwpKspS0
Out of the nine EU Fest films I was able to preview, I also think A SPELL TO WARD OFF THE DARKNESS is a masterpiece. It plays the first time on Saturday though I won’t be posting my write-up about it until Monday.
March 6th, 2014 at 10:14 pm
The trailer I have seen sounds interesting. At first, it looked like what you would get If Charles Burnett directed a low-budget African-American variation of Life of Pi (minus that film’s visual effects) or the African-American equivalent of a Werner Herzog’s German work (both his early and later works), but than at the climax of the trailer you hear black metal music and it made me read deeper into it. Wikipedia and IMDB label it as a documentary. To me it came off as a documentary of sorts or a special interest film. Could A Spell To Ward Off The Darkness be this year’s Upstream Color? When this film comes out I am going to see it. If the two Bens (Rivers and Russell) pull this off, than it will be interesting to see what they will tackle next.
March 7th, 2014 at 9:13 am
I think all of those points of reference are good but A SPELL TO WARD OFF THE DARKNESS is a true experimental film — unlike, say, UPSTREAM COLOR, which is a narrative film with an experimental slant. There is no plot and no real “characters” in SPELL although the same unnamed protagonist (who never speaks) does turn up in all three of its distinctive sections. I’m no fan of black metal but the 20 minute concert scene that climaxes the film blew my mind.
March 7th, 2014 at 1:41 pm
I hear you:) The only reason I compared it to Upstream Color is because as a narrative film people (including me) kept describing it to their friends as an experimental narrative film because it is not the type of film where you can easily describe the plot to. The plot of Memento is straightforward compared to Upstream Color. I only judged A Spell To Ward Off The Darkness by its trailer (I have not seen the film yet). Now that you mention it though, it almost looks like a documentary/special interest film worthy of Koyaanisqatsi. Regards:)
March 9th, 2014 at 10:24 pm
I’m with you on CHILD’S POSE. Not quite up to par with some of the other films out of Romania, but the strength of the film is in Razvan Radulescu’s writing.The guy is incredible.
Otherwise, I appreciated WHAT NOW? REMIND ME more than I liked it. Hopefully I’ll be able to check out THE STRANGE LITTLE CAT during the week. Same goes for A SPELL TO WARD OFF DARKNESS.
March 9th, 2014 at 10:40 pm
Thanks for responding. I thought CHILD’S POSE had an excellent script and lead performance; I just wish someone else had directed it. Radulescu strikes me as the kind of director who devotes 100% of his energy towards working with his actors and then tells his D.P. to just shoot what they’re doing like a documentary.
I liked WHAT NOW? REMIND ME more but I felt that it was a little too long.
Part two of my EUFF preview will be up tomorrow.
March 24th, 2014 at 12:29 pm
I don’t think you gave Pawlikowski’s Ida justice in your review, which minimizes the film’s overall impact. All his films are excellent, and this may be his best yet. Actually it’s one of the better Holocaust films I’ve seen, as it doesn’t approach the subject directly, but through a highly personalized character study of estranged relatives who don’t entirely like or trust one another. I wouldn’t call anything in this film recycled, as his approach to conventional material is revelatory, as it’s shot in a style that resembles Eastern European films of the 60’s, literally rediscovering a lost art since the break up of the Soviet Union. The subtlety of the film speaks volumes as it delicately contrasts the present with the past.
While on the surface it’s a very simply film, yet there are multiple layers of underlying examinations, not the least of which is a perceived absence of God in the Jewish extermination, or in the subsequent Stalinist purges, contrasted against a novitiate nun’s interest in experiencing “the world” before she takes her vows, where the music is positively extraordinary,
matching the artistic reach of the cinematography, where I’m not sure the music of John Coltrane has ever been put to more expressive use.
There are moments of sublime poetry in this film, and exquisite acting, where the implications at the end are left ambiguous. This may be the best film at the EU Fest, replaying at the Music Box in late May.
March 24th, 2014 at 2:02 pm
Thanks for the detailed response. Your defense of the film is so eloquent that it makes me want to see it again (as well as Pawlikowski’s other work).
December 29th, 2014 at 11:25 am
[…] Swiss director Ramon Zurcher’s startling first feature, alternately funny and unsettling, is one of the finest German films in recent years, as well as one of the best debut features by anyone. Confined almost entirely to a single apartment-building setting, it concerns the gathering of an extended family over the course of a single day. In my original capsule review from when it played the Siskel Center’s European Union Film Festival, I compared The Strange Little Cat favorably to Jacques Tati’s Play Time (praise from me doesn’t come much higher) in the sense that it isn’t about the characters so much as it is “really about space and time, order and chaos, images and sounds, and the relationships between people and objects. Everything seems precisely choreographed yet elements of chance undoubtedly come into play, especially where the family’s cat and dog (the ultimate non-actors) are concerned.” This film is so charming, so weird, so self-assured; I can’t wait to see what Zurcher, a former student of the great Bela Tarr, comes up with next. More here. […]