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Film Capital of the Week

Being a second-rate movie town has its advantages.

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Heaven knows what possessed the Chicago International Film Festival to adopt "Film capital of the world" as its slogan this year, but considering some of the movies that played in New York and Los Angeles recently and never made it here, it's more than a stretch. Among the remarkable films they could see and we couldn't were the subtitled, not the dubbed, version of Hayao Miyazaki's Howl's Moving Castle (2004), Abbas Kiarostami's Five (2003), Hou Hsiao-hsien's Cafe Lumiere (2003), and several 2005 films, including Tickets (with 40-minute episodes by Kiarostami, Ken Loach, and Ermanno Olmi), Hou's Three Times, Alexander Sokurov's The Sun, and Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's L'enfant. Of course even if you lived in New York or LA you might not have heard about them, because the industry, which assumes no one's interested in such films, kept their profiles so low.

Plenty of what the industry thinks we should be interested in was on display a month ago at the 30th Toronto International Film Festival. More than ever before the industry reps casually took over the city as they previewed their latest "indie" and "art"--as opposed to mainstream--product.

American journalists these days are showing more compassion for ordinary people in dire straits, but the main headline on the Toronto-based National Post on September 15--"Ottawa's Afghan Warning: Bill Graham expected to tell nation troops will die"--was overshadowed by a huge glamour shot captioned "Cameron Diaz Snaps at Photographers." On the front page of the same edition's film-festival section was the story "Modine a casualty of the red carpet: Actor pays price for wearing open-toed shoes."

The tale about Matthew Modine's foot being stepped on by someone in high heels ended with "Read into this what you may: Modine has been in town for the screening of his new one, the not-so-serious and acquired-taste film Mary. He plays Jesus." Having seen Mary--an exceptionally serious film that won't be coming here anytime soon, if at all, even though it won the special jury prize at Venice--I suddenly found myself wanting to defend it. Abel Ferrara's film is indeed difficult and disjointed, but it also has many powerful elements, including bold ideas about religion and fine performances by Forest Whitaker, Juliette Binoche, and Modine, as a writer-director playing Jesus in his own film.

All the same, Toronto is by common consensus the site of the most important film festival in North America, having bypassed Sundance as a marketing tool of the studios, though still trailing far behind Cannes in terms of prestige. With a bit of goodwill, Chicago's festival might qualify our city as the "film capital of the midwest." The studios' lack of interest in this event may be a blessing, because we're not being bullied by celebrity journalism and advertising for a few favored films and can make our own choices.

I have to applaud the festival's faithfulness in sticking with certain filmmakers year after year, even when nobody else likes them (Claude Lelouch, Lina Wertmuller) or when they run off the rails (Tsai Ming-liang, with this year's The Wayward Cloud). I'm not sure if this is a critical position--the New York film festival does the same thing with Lars von Trier--but it's a likable one. The Chicago festival did miss Manoel de Oliveira's last feature, O Quinto Imperio (2004), but it's been showing his work with such devoted regularity for so long that the 96-year-old Portuguese master said he might turn up here this year. Whether or not he makes it, the festival deserves our gratitude for championing him--and for screening such exceptional films as The Squid and the Whale, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Play, and The Boys of Baraka.

Screenings this year are being held through October 20. Many directors and a few actors are scheduled to appear at screenings of their films. Check the festival Web site for up-to-date information.

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