A Preview of the 58th Chicago International Film Festival

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Fall—such a fickle, gorgeous, unpredictable season for us in the Midwest. One day you are wearing a short-sleeve shirt and maybe even shorts, and the next day you are dusting off that turtleneck and jacket from the closet. You may even have to turn the furnace on. Outside, the leaves take their own sweet time turning yellow in September, but once the temperature dips below 60 in October, they are desperate to start their annual colorful ritual, falling rapidly from their branches and filling our streets, yards, and parks. 

Theaters and classical concert venues inaugurate their seasonal programming as well, packing the calendar with a multitude of choices. There is simply no way to attend every single event.

It is also the season when film festivals around the world—Toronto, San Sebastian, Venice, Telluride, New York, and Chicago—participate in the annual roundelay of showcasing the high-profile studio and independent titles that will be competing for the attention of ticket-buyers and award shows alike until early next year. For us film lovers, these festivals represent a veritable feast, a bounty of goodies after a summer full of franchises and bombastic digital effects. We gorge on the mountains of tasty morsels served to us by our screens, big, medium, and small.

Which brings me to the 58th Chicago International Film Festival, which began on Wednesday with its first-ever Opening Night Block Party on Southport Avenue between Grace and Waveland, mere blocks away from Wrigley Field, along with the Opening Night screening at the Music Box Theatre of Steve James’ (Hoop Dreams, Life Itself) new documentary, A Compassionate Spy, about Theodore Hall, a University of Chicago graduate who was recruited to work on the Manhattan Project and then passed crucial military secrets to Soviet intelligence in hopes of saving the world.

The festival ends Sunday, October 23, with the presentation of Noah Baumbach’s adaptation of the Don DeLillo novel White Noise, starring Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig, at the same venue.

In between, the festival will present 92 features—72 fiction, 20 documentary, and 56 shorts—plus the annual Industry Days program featuring a conversation with director Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, The Whale), master classes with composer Mychael Danna (Life of Pi) and musician and filmmaker Kris Bowers (King Richard, Bridgerton), and dozens of panels with industry representatives.

The festival will pay tribute to actress Kathryn Hahn (who will receive the Career Achievement Award), actress Anna Diop (receiving the Rising Star Award), and actor Jonathan Majors (Artist Achievement Award).

In addition to the Music Box, screenings and events will take place at the AMC River East 21, the Gene Siskel Film Center and the Chicago History Museum, with pop-up screenings at Austin Town Hall and the Hamilton Park Cultural Center in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood on the South Side. A select number of features and the entire shorts programs will be available virtually via the festival’s streaming platform for residents of Illinois, Wisconsin, and Indiana.

Of those 92 features, 11 come from Spanish and Portuguese-speaking countries. I have only seen two so far, but that won’t stop me from writing about those titles that I am most looking forward to catching at the festival if time allows.

The Beast (dir. Rodrigo Sorogoyen)

Rodrigo Sorogoyen may still be unknown to most film critics in this country. None of his films have been theatrically distributed in the United States, and yet he is one of the most consistently creative film and television directors to have come out of Spain in the last two decades. I caught his political thriller El reino at the Miramar Fine Arts Cinema in Puerto Rico three years ago and was blown away.

Making its U.S. premiere as the festival, as well as participating in its International Competition, Sorogoyen’s latest film, As Bestas (The Beasts), promises to follow in El reino’s footstep by delivering a slow, deliberate first half that amps up in intensity and suspense, exploding towards the end.

Shot in French, Gallego, and Spanish, the film follows a French couple who are sustainable farmers in a remote village in Galicia. Tolerated by their neighbors at first, things begin to go from bad to worse when the husband stands in opposition to a local project that would benefit the community.

The Kings of the World (dir. Laura Mora)

I missed Laura Mora’s first film, Killing Jesus, when it played at the festival about four or five years ago. Her follow-up film, Los reyes del mundo (The Kings of the World), is now making its North American premiere at the festival after winning three major awards at the San Sebastián Film Festival, including Best Film, and being selected by Colombia to represent it at the Academy Awards for Best International Feature. The film has also been submitted for consideration in the festival’s International Competition.

Nineteen-year-old Rá receives a letter from the government notifying him that he has inherited property seized from paramilitaries a few hours from Medellín, leading him and his gang to embark on a journey across Colombia on a road to nowhere full of violence, turmoil, and courage.

Vicenta B (dir. Carlos Lechuga)

There are two types of films from Cuba: the ones produced, promoted, and supported by the past-its-glory-days Instituto Cubano del Arte y la Industria Cinematográfica, and those made independently and almost underground by a new generation of filmmakers who are sticking their middle finger at a decaying “revolution.” With only two films, Carlos Lechuga has become one of the most influential and loudest voices of that new generation.

His third film, Vicenta B, receiving its U.S. premiere at the festival, tells the story of a santera who suddenly loses her power to communicate with the spirits after her son leaves the country in search of better opportunities. Facing an existential crisis, she begins a journey to reconnect with the spirits and find out why everyone on the island seems to have lost their faith.

Alis (dir. Clare Weiskopf and Nicolás van Hemelryk)

Now, about those two films I have seen…

Directed by Clare Weiskopf and Nicolás van Hemelryk, the Colombian-Romanian-Chilean documentary Alis, in another U.S. premiere—there are 22 of those at this year’s festival—is the result of five years of film workshops at a Bogotá institution that houses teenage girls whose families are no longer able to care for them. The 10 teens interviewed in the film are asked to imagine a 15-year-old classmate named Alis. What does she look like? What is she like? What did you like to talk about the most with her? And, while looking at a mirror, what do you see of Alis in that mirror?

As each girl begins to create a different Alis while speaking directly to the camera, you begin to understand the purpose of this experiment: Alis is a conduit for each to talk about their own lives and their own travails. The camera forces you to look them in the eye as each one opens up about their past and about themselves.

Weiskopf and van Hemelryk intercut these on-camera testimonies with images of their day-to-day lives at the center. They deliberately leave the adults out of the picture—except for one scene at the beginning, and even then we only hear that adult. These girls have built a unique bond between themselves and created their own family in their confinement, over which adults have no say so.

Alis is a tough, heartbreaking, and, in the end, empathetic portrait of teenagehood. You may not know what kind of life they will lead once they leave that institution, but you can’t help but wish the best for them.

Huesera (dir. Michelle Garza Cervera)

Any synopsis of Mexican director Michelle Garza Cervera’s feature debut, Hueserawould lead you to believe that it is a conventional supernatural horror story—it is anything but. Rather, it uses genre conventions and combines them with a good dose of Mexican mysticism and Guadalupana fervor to paint a chilling portrait of a young woman who may not be mentally ready to tackle the challenges of motherhood and the societal pressures it comes with.

After years of trying, Valeria (Natalia Solian) and her husband Raúl (Alfonso Dosal) finally receive the good news that they will finally be parents. Valeria’s happiness is short-lived, though, as she begins to see spectral faceless figures pop up everywhere, especially one that jumps from a building to the pavement below and then stands up and starts crawling toward her building in spider-like movements, bones cracking.

Afraid that one of these spirits has invaded her home, Valeria slowly begins to lose her grip, seeking refuge in her memories as a punk rebel and her affair with former lover Octavia. But things begin to spiral further out of control once the baby is born.

The film’s sound design is exquisite, and Garza Cervera and her cinematographer Nur Rubio Sherwell cunningly use the frame to hide information in plain sight and double and triple images to convey a sense of fracture. But, most of all, there is Natalia Solian’s unnerving and finally compassionate portrait of a woman split in two by tradition, dysfunctionality, and her past.


Featured image courtesy of ‘The Kings of the World’

Born in Santurce, Puerto Rico, Alejandro has been active in Latino media since 1988 when he and a group of 12 independent producers launched Orgullo Latino, a weekly newsmagazine series in the Chicago Access Network. Alejandro joined ¡Exito!, the Chicago Tribune’s Spanish-language weekly, as a freelance reporter in 1993, where he wrote about entertainment and culture with the occasional foray into politics. He was also a frequent contributor to the Chicago Tribune’s Tempo, Arts & Entertainment and Friday sections. Part of the transition team that replaced ¡Exito! with Hoy, and in 2004 he became Senior Editor for all three editions of Hoy (New York, Chicago and LA). He currently is a freelance writer, editor and media relations specialist in Chicago.

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