Over the past two decades the European Union Film Festival, presented by the Gene Siskel Film Center, has become a serious rival to the Chicago International Film Festival and a spring counterweight to CIFF's annual blowout in October. The EU fest may lack the racial diversity and global reach of CIFF, but its programming is just as ambitious if not more so. The 19th edition of the European Union Film Festival opens Friday and runs for four weeks, with 62 new features and numerous personal appearances. Following are some of the highlights, but there's much more; for a complete schedule visit siskelfilmcenter.org. —J.R. Jones
- The Fencer
The Fencer An elite Estonian fencer (Märt Avandi), hiding from Stalin's secret police because of his forced service in the German army during World War II, finds safe haven working as a teacher in a remote Estonian village, but his rapport with the students in his fencing club arouses the jealousy of the school's principal and jeopardizes his safety. Based on the life of Endel Nelis, this 2015 Finnish biopic is an affecting portrait of a decent man who risks his life to uphold a bond of trust with his students. Though squarely in the tradition of Dead Poets Society and The Bad News Bears, the film offers higher stakes and, consequently, a bigger payoff. Director Klaus Härö elicits fine performances all around, especially from his child actors, and Tuomo Hutri's cinematography is gorgeous. In Estonian and Russian with subtitles. —Marilyn Ferdinand 93 min. Tue 3/8 and Fri 3/11, 8 PM.
- Free Entry
Free Entry Two teenage girls seek a taste of adulthood at a Budapest EDM festival in this strong debut feature (2014) from Hungarian director Yvonne Kerekgyarto. Newcomers Luca Pusztai and Ágnes Barta are excellent as the girls, whose pretense of cool barely conceals their adolescent insecurity, and a sense of dread gathers as they work their way into ever-more perilous situations involving drugs and guys with suspect intentions. The action builds to a particularly memorable scene making use of Sam the Sham & the Pharoahs' sinister 1966 single "Li'l Red Riding Hood." Also known as One Day of Betty. In Hungarian with subtitles. —Eric Lutz 69 min. Sun 3/13, 5 PM, and Thu 3/17, 8:15 PM.
- In Harmony
In Harmony In this 2015 drama from French director Denis Dercourt (The Page Turner), a beautiful insurance adjuster (Belgian actress Cécile De France) tries to convince a former movie stuntman (veteran actor Albert Dupontel) to accept a settlement for the accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down. As she chips away at his story, arguing he took "ill-considered risks" the day a horse trampled his spine, and he holds out for lifelong compensation, mutual respect slowly turns to sexual tension. Thanks to a taut script and two stunning, nuanced performances, this is a tense, unconventional love story. Dupontel excels in a fearless, physical role, whereas De France demonstrates the power of dramatic restraint. In French with subtitles. —Adam Morgan 88 min. Sat 3/5, 2 PM, and Mon 3/7, 6 PM.
Lolo Julie Delpy (Before Sunset) directed and stars in this crass but quick-witted comedy (2015), which might have been titled French Women of a Certain Age. A prickly Parisian (Delpy), vacationing with her outspoken girlfriend (Karin Viard) in a seaside town, gets involved with a local beach bum (Dany Boon). What begins as a typical rom-com takes a left turn, however, with the arrival of Lolo, the Delpy character's bizarre college-age son, whose attempts to get rid of the suitor grow more elaborate and implausible. Smarter than most Apatow clones, this is an infinitely quotable riot, especially when Delpy and Viard share the screen. In French with subtitles. —Adam Morgan 99 min. Sun 3/13, 3 PM, and Thu 3/17, 6 PM.
- Love Island
Love Island In this painfully unfunny sex farce (2014), a Bosnian man (Ermin Bravo) and his pregnant French bride (Ariane Labed) flirt with infidelity while vacationing at a cheesy "all-inclusive" resort on a Croatian island. The twist is that the husband doesn't realize the Romanian beauty he desires (Ada Condeescu) is actually his wife's lover, though the ensuing bisexual triangle is just an excuse for a series of lame gags, many revolving around Bravo's ill-fitting Speedo. Director Jasmila Žbanić attempts a tone of lighthearted fun—hypersaturated colors, karaoke renditions of 80s pop songs, surreal underwater interludes depicting Labed and Condeescu as mermaids—but it all feels forced and cloying. Aging spaghetti-western icon Franco Nero (who served as executive producer) pops up as a randy Italian tourist and Greek-chorus figure. Žbanić cowrote the screenplay with Chicago-based novelist Aleksandar Hemon. Subtitled. —Michael Glover Smith 86 min. Hemon attends the screenings. Sat 3/5, 3:45 PM, and Mon 3/14, 8 PM.
- No Home Movie
No Home Movie Chantal Akerman's final film shares some formal concerns with her earlier works; what sets it apart is a stream of love and yearning, regret and loss, from which painful memories resurface. Akerman (who died in 2015) said that she prepared for her 1975 masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles by closely observing her homemaker mother, Natalia, for decades, and indeed this 2015 documentary about her mother's last years reveals an extraordinarily warm, intimate bond between parent and globe-trotting daughter. Long takes of the Israeli desert, paralleled with long takes of empty rooms in Natalia's apartment, suggest her sense of dislocation as a Holocaust survivor, a condition she struggles to verbalize in her kitchen with a daughter who probes for more. The combination of memoir and abstraction is both cerebral and heartrending. In French with subtitles. —Andrea Gronvall 115 min. Sat 3/19, 3:30 PM.
- One Floor Below
One Floor Below Rudimentary settings, a scoreless soundtrack, and extended takes all locate this Romanian feature squarely within the "New Wave" of the aughts, but the story is pure Hitchcock: In the stairwell of an apartment building, a phlegmatic family man (Teodor Corban) overhears the attractive woman in the unit below his clashing with a married man from across the street (Iulian Postelnicu) and shortly thereafter she's found dead. Unwilling to get involved, the witness keeps mum during a police interview, but then the suspect neighbor uses his friendship with the man's son to insinuate himself into the family's home. Writer-director Radu Muntean (Tuesday, After Christmas) occupies his characters with trivial matters—the neighbor offers his tech-geek expertise to the son and presses the father for help with a car registration—but the weirdly ambiguous conflict between the two men eventually comes to a boil. Alexandru Baciu and Razvan Radulescu collaborated with Muntean on the script. In Romanian with subtitles. —J.R. Jones 93 min. Sun 3/20, 5:30 PM, and Thu 3/24, 6 PM.
- The Paradise Suite
The Paradise Suite For this 2015 drama from the Netherlands, writer-director Joost van Ginkel interweaves the stories of a Bosnian mother, the Serbian war criminal she's tracking, the Bulgarian model he kidnaps and casts in a sex show, the African immigrant who performs with her, the Swedish conductor who watches them at a tony brothel, and his son (Erik Adelöw in a brilliant debut), a 10-year-old pianist, who spies the Bosnian woman by chance. Music from the conductor's rehearsal accompanies a masterly montage that lends common pathos to unconnected acts around the city; ultimately the film's medley of interpersonal crises widens into a moving vista of modern Europe. Subtitled. —Bill Stamets 118 min. Screens on Friday as part of the opening-night program, with a reception after the film. Actor Issaka Sawadogo attends both screenings. Fri 3/4, 6 PM, and Sat 3/5, 8 PM.
- Phantom Boy
Phantom Boy In this moving 2015 animation by Alain Gagnol and Jean-Loup Felicioli (A Cat in Paris), a young cancer patient with the power to leave his body helps a cop whose legs have been broken bring down a criminal mastermind holding New York City hostage. Able to fly anywhere invisibly, but unable to touch anything, the boy acts as a spy for the cop, who's been marginalized by the force for his reckless methods, and as a guide to the enterprising journalist also trying to save the city from the gangster. The noirish plotline is smart and engaging, but this French film is most powerful for its treatment of the young hero's illness; in one scene he uses his supernatural ability to eavesdrop on his family as they discuss him. In French with subtitles. —Eric Lutz 84 min. Thu 3/31, 6:30 PM.
- The Prosecutor, the Defender, the Father and His Son
The Prosecutor, the Defender, the Father and His Son This regrettably titled international coproduction (2015) is not a sequel to Peter Greenaway's erotic art-house favorite The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989) but a dour legal procedural about the war crimes trial of a Bosnian military commander at the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague. Inspired by a true story, Bulgarian writer-director Iglika Triffonova brings an ostensible objectivity to the trial by alternating between the perspectives of the French prosecutor (veteran actress Romane Bohringer) and the Dutch defense attorney assigned to the case (Samuel Fröler). One admires her intent to do justice to the full complexity of the ethical and legal issues raised, but she fails to provide the dramatic tension necessary to make this compelling. Though Bohringer is a formidable screen presence, her performance is compromised by a shaky command of English, which she's required to speak at length. In English and subtitled Dutch and Bosnian. —Michael Glover Smith Sun 3/27, 5:30 PM, and Wed 3/30, 8:30 PM.
- Sunset Song
Sunset Song Ever the pictorialist, Terence Davies opens his adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon's 1932 novel by panning over a field of rippling wheat, from which the 18-year-old heroine (Agyness Deyn) suddenly sits up. The shot asserts her strong bond to the farming country of northeast Scotland, which holds her despite a life of hardship: her mother commits suicide rather than bear a seventh child, her hardened father (an especially scary Peter Mullan) ritually beats her older brother (Jack Greenlees), and her loving marriage to a local lad (Kevin Guthrie) turns dark after his service in World War I provokes in him a savagery reminiscent of her father's. The story's extreme physical and emotional violence poses a challenge to a lyrical master like Davies, and his staging of the domestic drama can seem slow and somber. But Deyn gives a vivid performance as the daughter, a quiet but determined survivor in a patriarchal society; whenever she steps out into the wider world, the movie soars. —J.R. Jones 139 min. Fri 3/18, 2 PM, and Sat 3/19, 3:30 PM.
- Tale of Tales
Tale of Tales The ambitious Italian director Matteo Garrone (Gomorrah, Reality) makes his English-language debut, directing an international cast that includes Salma Hayek, Toby Jones, Vincent Cassel, and John C. Reilly. Yet the material is deeply rooted in Garrone's native land: drawn from Tale of Tales, a 17th-century fairy tale collection by Neapolitan poet Giambattista Basile, the movie poaches on Guillermo del Toro territory with its alternately comic and gruesome treatment of three supernatural stories. Hayek plays a barren queen who gets pregnant by eating the cooked heart of a sea monster, and Cassel is a randy king whose lovely new queen is really an old hag magically transformed; best of all is Jones as a king who adopts a flea as a pet and raises it into a pale, clammy-looking beast (which he cooingly addresses as "Scootchy"). A scene of a trained bear entertaining the court with its horn-playing and hula-hoop prowess is typical of the movie's freakish delights. —J.R. Jones 134 min. Sun 3/27, 3 PM, and Wed 3/30, 6 PM.
- The Tree
The Tree In this 2014 Slovenian drama, writer-director Sonja Prosenc sketches an ambiguous parable about freedom amid murderous customs. An imaginative nine-year-old boy (Lukas Matija Rosas Ursic) lives with his teenage brother (Jernej Kogovsek) and their mother (Katarina Stegnar) in a house whose tall white walls protect them from unseen neighbors with guns. The boy rides his bike around the courtyard, prettifies the family goat with blue dye, buries a dead bird, and erects a tiny forest with twigs; his father's absence is never explained, nor is the family's outing to a graveyard where the mother washes a gravestone with no name or dates. Prosenc tries to create a sense of old-world menace, but it's hampered by the mannered cinematography and insistent score. In Slovenian with subtitles. —Bill Stamets 90 min. Sat 3/5 and Mon 3/7, 6 PM.
Viva A young, gay hairdresser (Héctor Medina) who styles wigs for a drag troupe in a Havana nightclub starts supplementing his meager income by taking to the stage himself, but just as he's discovering the joys of performance, his long-absent father (Jorge Perugorría) is released from prison, moves in, and forbids him to go near the club. Irish director Paddy Breathnach and screenwriter Mark O'Halloran tell a familiar coming-of-age story in an unfamiliar setting—beautiful, crumbling, time-frozen Cuba. The grinding poverty of the characters, who barter, borrow, and steal to make ends meet, becomes a backdrop to the central story of an alienated father and son trying to connect. Sentimentality creeps into the closing scenes, undermining the film's tough-minded realism, but Breathnach and O'Halloran show a real affinity for life in Cuba, a land, like their own, where people see better opportunities overseas. In Spanish with subtitles. —Marilyn Ferdinand R, 100 min. O'Halloran attends the screenings. Sun 3/13, 5 PM, and Mon 3/14, 6 PM.
- A War
A War Tobias Lindholm—whose gripping thriller A Hijacking (2012) detailed tense negotiations between Somali pirates and Danish shipping executives over a hijacked vessel—brings his exacting, clinical approach to this tale of Danish military forces in Afghanistan. Like the earlier film, this one is divided between two distinct worlds with different power dynamics: for the first half, Lindholm cuts from a company commander (Pilou Asbaek), stationed in Helmand province and charged with protecting innocent Afghanis from the Taliban, to his wife (Tuva Novotny), worrying about him and struggling to care for their small children. Only in the second half, after the commander is accused of a war crime and returns home to stand trial, do these two worlds merge and their respective realities clash, with sobering results. In Danish with subtitles. —J.R. Jones R, 115 min. Fri 3/25, 6 PM, and Sat 3/26, 8 PM.
- Wondrous Boccaccio
Wondrous Boccaccio Given the bawdiness of many tales in The Decameron, one might be surprised that writer-directors Paolo and Vittorio Taviani (The Night of the Shooting Stars) have included only one risque story (about a couple of wayward nuns) in their 2015 adaptation of Giovanni Boccaccio's classic. A group of bereaved youngsters flee medieval Florence to escape from the plague and, out in the countryside, console each other with fables about star-crossed lovers and dark obsessions (in the best of them a faithful swain rescues an infected woman whose husband has left her for dead). The brothers take a somber approach to the material, and the spare production design suits the stark choices facing the characters. Sometimes these attractive storytellers resemble the posed subjects of Pre-Raphaelite paintings, and their comportment helps make the filmmakers' case for art and discipline over chaos and despair. In Italian with subtitles. —Andrea Gronvall 120 min. Fri 3/11, 2 PM, and Wed 3/16, 7:45 PM. v