A Sampling of the 57th Chicago International Film Festival

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My relationship with the Chicago International Film Festival goes back to 1988, several months after my wife and I moved to Chicago. That I had not heard about it until then said more about the academic bubble I lived in during the years prior to our move than of the Festival’s reputation as North America’s longest-running competitive film festival. You can imagine my delight at discovering that my soon to be adopted hometown was also the home for an internationally recognized film festival—as well as the home for such film hangouts as Facets Multimedia and the Gene Siskel Film Center and equally important festivals as the Chicago Latino Film Festival.

Later, as an arts and entertainment reporter and film critic for ¡Exito!, the Chicago Tribune’s Spanish-language weekly, I started covering the festival’s selection of films from Latin America, Spain and Portugal because nobody in Chicago’s Spanish-language media was paying any attention to them. And then, 10 years ago, I joined the festival’s seasonal team as one of their in-house publicists, coordinating press interviews with visiting filmmakers, writing and editing press releases, and handling press screenings, screeners requests and red carpet check-ins. This year, I am covering the festival once again as a critic.

Screenshot from Wes Anderson’s ‘The French Dispatch’ (Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

The 57th Chicago International Film Festival opened last Wednesday, October 13, with three films: the official Opening Night screening of Wes Anderson’s much-anticipated celebration of the printed word The French Dispatch at the venerated Music Box Theater in the Lakeview neighborhood; the drive-in projection of Todd Haynes’ documentary The Velvet Underground at Chi-Town Movies in the Pilsen neighborhood; and the opening-night After Dark screening of Halloween Kills, the latest entry in the horror franchise. After Dark, the festival’s celebration of all things genre, was programmed this year by Raúl Benítez, known in the city for his daring and imaginative programming for such organizations as Comfort Station, Full Spectrum Features, and the Midwest Film Festival, not to mention countless horror-film related events.

Last year, like many festivals, the Chicago International Film Festival adopted a hybrid format, blending streaming with drive-in screenings. The format is being super-sized this year. The festival is not only going back to their traditional home base at the AMC River East Theaters in Streeterville, but also has expanded to other venues: besides the above-mentioned Music Box Theatre and Chitown Movies, the festival will also screen films at the Gene Siskel Film Center and through several pop-up screenings at the Parkway Ballroom in Bronzeville. Fifty of the 90 feature films and all of the short films will be available online to residents of the states of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri and Wisconsin through the festival’s online streaming platform and festival apps on Roku and Apple TV. The films will be available until Sunday, October 24—Closing Night of the festival. 

Screenshot from Pedro Almodóvar’s ‘Parallel Mothers/Madres paralelas’

Besides The French Dispatch and Halloween Kills, other much-anticipated films to be screened before they reach your local multiplex or art house include Denis Villeneuve’s faithful adaptation of Frank Herbert’s science-fiction classic Dune (although, really, it’s Dune Part One, since Villeneuve split the adaptation in two parts); Kenneth Branagh’s autobiographical Belfast, with Branagh in attendance to receive the festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award; Pedro Almodóvar’s new film Parallel Mothers/Madres paralelas starring Penélope Cruz; Jaymes Samuel’s Western The Harder They Fall featuring Jonathan Majors, Idris Elba and Regina King; Apitchapong Weerasethakul’s sensory meditation Memoria, shot in Colombia (and that country’s Official Selection for the Academy Award for Best International Feature); Jane Campion’s critically acclaimed The Power of the Dog; and Pablo Larraín’s Spencer with Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana, among others. While there is undoubtedly a certain thrill in watching such high-profile films at a festival alongside fellow cinephiles, as a critic and moviegoer I have always preferred to pay far more attention to those films that have yet to secure a distribution deal in the United States. To discover that new voice that seems to come out of the blue, that film that offers a new way to look at the world—and at cinema—is part of the magic of attending a film festival.

I always start with the Cinemas of the Americas program and whatever films have been selected from Spain and Portugal. Of the nine Latin American films featured in this year’s program, close to half already half a U.S. distributor: Weerasethakul’s Colombia (NEON); Alonso Ruizpalacios’ A Cop Movie/Una película de policías and Tatiana Huezo’s Prayers for the Stolen/Noche de fuego (Netflix); and The House of Snails/La casa del caracol, Macarena Astorga’s feature debut (Amazon Prime). Other than Pedro Almodóvar’s film, neither of the other two Spanish films participating in the festival have a U.S. distributor attached to it: Icíar Bollaín’s Maixabel and Neus Ballús’ The Odd-Job Men.

Screenshot from Neus Ballús’ ‘The Odd-Job Men’

I do hope that someone picks up The Odd-Job Men for distribution in this country. Receiving its U.S. premiere at the festival, this quirky, droll, and at times politically incorrect film about ingrained prejudices and immigration is my favorite film of the four I sampled this past week. Taking place during the span of a full week, Neus Ballús’ film sometimes plays more like fiction than documentary, even though most of the story is inspired by and is a riff on its three characters’ experiences, real-life plumbers all: Valero Escolar, the current owner of Instalaciones Losilla, a small plumbing firm in the outskirts of Barcelona; Mohammed Mellali, his employee, an immigrant from Morocco; and Pep Sarrà, the company’s oldest employee, a perfectionist who in the film announces his retirement (even though retirement is but a pipe dream for those people married to their jobs). 

Hired to replace Pep, Mohamed is given a one-week trial by the company’s owner. Unhappy with the news of Pep’s retirement, and scared at the prospect of starting again with a new partner, especially one who is learning the language and doesn’t look like him at all, Valero makes life hell for Mohammed, venting every kind of demeaning, bordering-on-racist insult at him. Meanwhile, as he begins to relish his retirement, Pep laments and even acts against the shoddy work others do in the construction industry. Mohammed, on the other hand, has to deal with a duo of unruly roommates who won’t let him study. Whether fixing air conditioners or leaky water tanks or installing an automated security system, the trio, then the duo, encounter a cross-section of Barcelona’s privileged and not-so-privileged population, each with its own quirks. Unlike the fiction-documentary hybrids I have seen this year, Ballus’ is the most effective in combining elements of both to tell a story that feels fresh and relatable but is also nuanced in its depiction of human interaction. It’s delightful, funny and also infuriating. It makes you wonder how the hell these three can still get along. And it portrays a working class with all its strengths and weaknesses—a rarity in contemporary cinema.

Screenshot from Simón Mesa Soto’s ‘Amparo’

Amparo, the single mother of two at the heart of Simón Mesa Soto’s feature debut, Amparo, receiving its North American premiere at the festival, may not be a totally endearing character at first. And there’s no reason why she should be. As played by Sandra Melissa Torres in her acting debut, Amparo approaches life and those around her with a massive chip on her shoulder, as if the world was always against her. And that’s because, in a way, it is; even her mother looks down on her. The story takes place in Medellín in the late ’90s: returning from a long shift at the hospital she works at, Amparo discovers that neither of their children are home. She finds out that her son Elías has been picked up by the military on the street for not carrying a military I.D. and, as a result, has been drafted and will be sent to the Caquetá region where the fight against guerrillas is the worst. Government and military officials tell Amparo that it will cost close to two million Colombian pesos to free her son and she has less than 24 hours to come up with the money. She will do anything, no matter how morally questionable in the end, to set her son free, even when, as someone reminds her, “war is for the poor.” With its boxy aspect ratio and camera constantly on top of its protagonist, leaving her with little room to breathe, Amparo is reminiscent of the Dardenne Brothers’ 1997 film Rosetta. You feel her despair and desperation, her anger and frustration, the power and determination of a mother bear capable of anything to defend her cub. 

After winning the Silver Hugo in the festival’s Documentary Competition in 2018 for Ex-Shaman, Luiz Bolognesi returns to the festival with the U.S. premiere of The Last Forest/A última floresta, another urgent documentary about Brazil’s indigenous communities under siege, co-written with Yanomami leader Davi Kopenawa. Kopenawa prepares to meet with the white men to “teach them our way of thinking” while scaring away the gold prospectors that have been given carte blanche by Jair Bolsonaro’s government to do as they please in the Amazon. And, in a way, he is teaching the film’s white audience the Yanomami way of seeing the world. Bolognesi stays out of the way as much as possible as he documents the Yanomami’s communal culture, their daily rituals, lifestyle, and concerns, among them how other indigenous communities have fallen prey to mercury poisoning as a result of all this mining, and the temptations the white world offers their youth. Bolognesi even invites them to dramatize their creation myth to show this white audience how unique their cosmogony is. Winner of the Best Director Award in the Iberoamerican Documentary Feature Competition at the recently celebrated Guadalajara Film Festival, The Last Forest demands that we embrace its slow rhythms and change our way of looking at the world. It teaches us that we can become more empathetic if we learn how other cultures think and view the world.

Winner of the Best Picture and Best Actor Awards in the Iberoamerican Fiction Feature Competition also at Guadalajara, Claudia Huaiquimilla’s sophomore film, My Brothers Dream Awake/Mis hermanos sueñan despiertos—also a U.S. premiere—is, unfortunately, the weakest of the films I sampled. Inspired by the 2007 riot at Chile’s Puerto Montt Youth Center that left 10 boys dead, the film tells the story of 17-year-old Iván and his 14-year-old brother Franco, who’ve been waiting for a trial while incarcerated at a correctional center for over a year for a crime the film doesn’t really spell out. In fact, Huaiquimilla is far more interested in how these imprisoned young men and women create a sense of community on their own and how they cope in this sterile, squeaky-clean environment that is now their home and not on why they are there. Their sense of community is soon disrupted by the arrival of a new, more rebellious prisoner. Iván’s and Franco’s mother has abandoned them to their fate. A kind, friendly, bleeding-heart social worker (played by Paulina García) encourages them to become better persons. The elements for a hard, poignant, tough story are there, but I found the end result lacking and too bland, as sterile as the buildings keeping these young people locked inside.


Featured image: Screenshot from Luiz Bolognesi’ ‘The Last Forest/A última floresta’

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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