Below is part two of my 50th Chicago International Film Festival preview. The full schedule, with ticket info and showtimes, can be found on the CIFF website here.
Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako, Mauritania)
Mauritanian filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako follows up Bamako, his great 2006 indictment of the World Bank and western capitalism, with an equally damning indictment of third-world religious extremism. This lightning-in-a-bottle masterpiece, based on real events that occurred in 2012 but which seem even more prescient following the rise of ISIS, concerns the occupation of the Malian city of Timbuktu by militant Islamist rebels. Sissako’s eye-opening film intertwines several narratives, all of which dramatize the clash between foreign “jihadists” and the moderate Muslim natives of Mali, most prominent among them the story of a cattle farmer (Ibrahim Ahmed) whose wife is coveted by the region’s new extremist ruler. Like last year’s A Touch of Sin, this vital movie offers a keyhole through which viewers can peer into an authentic dramatization of pressing global issues that goes way beyond mere news headlines. What really elevates Timbuktu to the status of essential viewing, however, is the way Sissako brings to his story the point of view of poetry — most evident in a stunningly composed scene of conflict between the cattle farmer and a fisherman, and an exquisitely lovely montage sequence involving a soccer match played without a ball.
Timbuktu screens on Wednesday, October 15 and Thursday, October 16.
The Babadook (Jennifer Kent, Australia)
Amelia (Essie Davis), a young nursing-home employee, is tragically widowed in a car accident when her husband drives her to the hospital so she can give birth to their first child. Six years later, she can’t help but associate her troubled son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) with her beloved husband’s death. Amelia is frustrated by Samuel’s seemingly delusional belief that their household is being menaced by a shadowy monster named “Mr. Babadook,” a belief that is given credence by the mysterious arrival in their home of a children’s book of the same title (one of the most terrifying props in film history). This debut feature by Jennifer Kent is the best horror film I’ve seen in ages, not only because it manages to be scary without resorting to cliche — in itself a hugely impressive feat for this genre — but also because its story and characters are so believably rooted in primal, real-world psychological fears. Exceedingly well acted and art-directed (the disturbing intrusion of a red book into a home that is otherwise color-coded blue-gray is but one of the nice touches), The Babadook is already well on its way to achieving deserved cult-classic status.
The Babadook screens on Tuesday, October 21.
Baby Mary (Kris Swanberg, USA)
If you are considering attending one of CIFF’s various shorts programs, you might want to check out “Shorts 1: City and State — Locally Sourced,” which features the work of local Chicago filmmakers. Among the nine mini-movies being offered is Baby Mary, writer/director Kris Swanberg’s follow-up to her criminally underrated feature Empire Builder. In an African-American neighborhood on the city’s west side, an 8-year-old girl attempts to rescue a neighbor’s baby from neglect — taking her home, renaming her “Baby Mary,” and feeding her applesauce. It is lightly hinted that the protagonist’s maternal altruism is a byproduct of neglect at the hands of her own mother but Swanberg’s approach is thankfully more observational than editorial. Like Empire Builder, an otherwise very different film, this poignant but unsentimental short is more interested in raising questions than providing answers. What’s not in doubt is the wealth of feeling packed into its compact nine minutes, making it a far more rewarding experience than most contemporary American features.
Baby Mary screens on Tuesday, October 14, Friday, October 17 and Sunday, October 19. Swanberg will be in attendance for the first and last of these shows.
Ne Me Quitte Pas (Sabine Lubbe Bakker/Niels van Koevorden, Holland/Belgium)
With each passing year, I become more and more interested in non-traditional documentaries. This Belgian/Dutch co-production, accurately described in the CIFF program as a “breakout dark comedy alcoholic bromance,” fits the bill nicely. Eschewing direct-to-camera interviews, co-directors Sabine Lubbe Bakker and Niels van Koevorden follow the curious and intimate friendship between two rural middle-age men over a span of several months, resulting in an impressive verite doc that unfolds like art-house fiction. The men in question are Bob, a self-styled cowboy with occasional suicidal thoughts, and Marcel, a newly divorced alcoholic father of two, who are depicted as constantly commiserating with one other before, during and after the latter’s stint in rehab. I’m not sure how much the unusually unguarded behavior of the protagonists has to do with their copious alcohol consumption but most of this sad, funny and strange little movie rings true.
Ne Me Quitte Pas screens on Friday, Ocotber 17 and Tuesday, October 21.