Our guide to the 49th Chicago International Film Festival

Reviews of all the highlights from the festival's first week, plus spotlights of four directors whose films shouldn't be missed

| October 09, 2013
The Missing Picture
The Missing Picture

Each year I attend the Chicago International Film Festival, I end up seeing a handful of movies I find truly impressive, another handful I despise, and at least a dozen I'd rate as decent. That ratio of great to mediocre to bad movies is more or less the same as what I encounter in my regular moviegoing. The difference is that I go into most CIFF films with far fewer expectations. Programming director Mimi Plauché estimates that about 70 percent of the selections arrive at the fest without U.S. distribution; some have been reviewed at other prominent festivals, but for the most part they arrive without a trail of online criticism—and certainly without an ad campaign.

I come to such movies with three questions: 1) What will this movie tell me about the country it's from? 2) How will it engage with contemporary cinema in general? and 3) Does it uphold, challenge, or expand my conception of what movies can do? I find it edifying to spend two weeks watching movies with these questions in the front of my head. For one thing, I usually realize how much I take for granted when I go to the movies. If I approached every new film in this state of mind, would I be more or less enthusiastic about Enough Said? What about Metallica: Through the Never?

Whenever people ask me what they should see at the festival, my advice is to pick a half dozen films they know little about from as many different parts of the world. Chances are that several of your selections won't get picked up by a U.S. distributor and will never screen here again. Even if you don't get much in the way of quality, you'll certainly get variety and novelty.

There are always safe bets, of course—new features by major filmmakers and audience favorites from other recent festivals. In addition to the films by Tsai Ming-liang, Hirokazu Kore-eda, and Mahamat-Saleh Haroun (Grigris, which I recommend below), this year's festival has Chicago premieres from Frederick Wiseman, Claude Lanzmann, Andrzej Wajda, and Jafar Panahi (whose entry, Closed Curtain, is the second film the Iranian director has completed under house arrest). Also promising are the Dutch black comedy Borgman and the Mexican docudrama Heli, both of which inspired strong responses at Cannes this past May.

On the whole, though, CIFF belongs to itinerant movies still searching for (and often failing to find) audiences outside their native countries. This gives the festival a certain egalitarian spirit, with filmmakers and audiences alike hoping for new prospects but uncertain of what to expect. If you attend in a spirit of aesthetic or cultural curiosity, that uncertainty can be a very good thing; on some occasions at the fest, I've stumbled onto something so alien that it revises the basic expectations I bring to a movie. Here's hoping we're all so lucky this year. Ben Sachs

THE FESTIVAL OPENS Thursday, October 10, at the Chicago Theatre with a screening of The Immigrant (starring Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, and Jeremy Renner) and a scheduled appearance by director James Gray. It closes Thursday, October 24, with a screening of Joel and Ethan Coen's Inside Llewyn Davis, set amid the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early 60s; Oscar Isaac, who plays the title character, is scheduled to attend.

VENUE All films reviewed here screen at River East 21, 322 E. Illinois.

ADMISSION Unless otherwise noted, all tickets are $14 ($11 for students, seniors, and Cinema/Chicago members). A ten-admission pass is $125 ($95 for members), and a 20-admission pass is $240 ($180 for members). Weekday matinees through 5 PM are $5; late shows after 10 PM are $10. Special packages for opening- and closing-night galas.

ADVANCE SALES In person: Cinema/Chicago, 30 E. Adams, suite 800 (weekdays 10 AM-6 PM) or River East 21 (daily noon-8 PM; beginning October 11, one hour before the first show until the last film has begun). Online: ticket​master​.com/​chicagofilmfestival (individual tickets only) or chicago​film​festival​.com. By phone: 24 hours in advance at 312-332-3456; weekdays 10 AM-6 PM.

FOR MORE Call 312-332-3456 or go to chicago​film​festival​.com.

Special Events

In addition to personal appearances at the screenings, which are noted in the capsule reviews, the festival hosts various classes, discussions, and other events. Selected programs follow, all taking place at River East 21, 322 E. Illinois; unless otherwise noted, regular ticket prices apply.

Chicago native George Tillman Jr. (Soul Food, Notorious) accepts a career achievement award as part of the Black Perspectives Gala and screens his new film, The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete. Tickets are $20, $16 for Cinema/Chicago, and $50 with an afterparty at W Chicago Lakeshore Hotel. Fri 10/11, 6:30 PM.

Actor Bruce Dern will receive a career achievement award and introduce his latest film, Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, as part of the “festival centerpiece” program. Tickets are $25. Wed 10/16, 7 PM.

Silent-film historian David Robinson presents a 90-minute program of Czech comedies featuring actress Anny Ondra, as well as contemporary silent shorts made after the international success of The Artist. Thu 10/17, 6:15 PM.

Hong Kong filmmaker Scud accepts the Q Hugo Award for excellence in LGBT film and screens his feature Voyage. A 6 PM cocktail reception precedes the screening, and an afterparty follows at Sidetrack; tickets are $20. Mon 10/21, 7 PM, Center on Halsted, 3656 N. Halsted.

Documentary maker Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War, Standard Operating Procedure) introduces his latest feature: The Unknown Known, a portrait of former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Wed 10/23, 7:30 PM.

Director spotlights

Italian horror master Dario Argento presents Dracula 3D in person.

James Gray, director of We Own the Night and Two Lovers, presents The Immigrant.

Chicago native John McNaughton's The Harvest is the director's first film in over a decade.

Tsai Ming-liang's Stray Dogs follows in the tradition of Chaplin and Ozu.

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[Recommended] At Berkeley

Frederick Wiseman's documentary Aspen (1991) seemed like a response to the greed and materialism of America during the first Bush administration; At Berkeley, a monumental record of the University of California at Berkeley, feels like his response to the deregulation and rising income disparity that characterized the second. Shot in autumn 2010, the film contains numerous scenes showing higher education at its best: impassioned rap sessions between students and public policy professors, medical-engineering students fitting a disabled veteran with robotic legs, and inspired close readings of classic poetry. But these moments are gradually overwhelmed by scenes of administrators dealing with an ongoing budget crisis—the result, we're often reminded, of drastic state disinvestment in public education. This is the bitterest movie Wiseman has made in some time, climaxing with scenes of a failed student protest that cast a dark shadow over the preceding narrative. Ben Sachs 244 min. Sun 10/20, 6:30 PM.

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Amarcord

A lazy but far from empty piece of fanciful recollection from Federico Fellini about his hometown (1974)—uneven, loosely structured, and at times pretty vulgar as well as sentimental, but with some touching and lovely episodes, most memorably the village's look at an ocean liner and a wedding party. With Magali Noel and Bruno Zanin. In Italian with subtitles. Dave Kehr 127 min. Sat 10/19, 4 PM.

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[Recommended] The Battle of Tabato

Similar to Miguel Gomes's Tabu, this eccentric drama uses black-and-white cinematography and an opaque, deeply symbolic narrative to contemplate Portugal's history of imperialism in Africa. A native of Guinea-Bissau, returning home from Europe for his daughter's wedding, is haunted by memories of the African country's war with Portugal. The film's intriguingly elusive first half recalls the visual style of Jean-Luc Godard and the affectless characterizations of early Jim Jarmusch; when tragedy befalls the characters, the tone veers toward magical realism as the country's spiritual heritage begins to penetrate the contemporary setting. Director João Viana deftly handles the story's allegory, ensuring the film's poetic qualities without underplaying its sociopolitical themes. The overall effect is that of a fable anchored by history. In Mandinka with subtitles. Drew Hunt 78 min. Viana attends the screenings. Sat 10/12, 4 PM, and Sun 10/13, 7 PM.

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The Blinding Sunlight

Thanks to recent advances in consumer-grade video, a new wave of politically charged cinema has emerged from mainland China, with enterprising filmmakers (often working clandestinely and with very small crews) creating works of social criticism outside the control of government censors. This independent production by Yu Liu, shot in Beijing with first-time actors, is representative of the ongoing trend. The episodic plot centers on a long-unemployed man who runs an illegal taxi service to supplement the meager financial assistance he receives from the state; when his adolescent son turns to petty crime, it seems like a viable alternative to flailing at an honest living. The simple, deadpan visual style gives this the feel of a live-action comic strip, which befits the movie's blunt anger. In Mandarin with subtitles. Ben Sachs 85 min. Liu attends the screenings. Fri 10/11, 8:30 PM; Sun 10/13, 3:15 PM; and Wed 10/16, 3:30 PM.

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Blue Is the Warmest Color

A young lesbian couple (Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos) weather a series of ups and downs in this sappy French drama by Abdellatif Kechiche (The Secret of the Grain). Seydoux and Exarchopoulos deliver worthy performances, but Kechiche mishandles his ultrawidescreen frame by shooting almost every scene in the same shallow-focus medium close-up. He deviates from this drab aesthetic in a series of fiercely graphic sex scenes, but the results aren't any better. The sequences are meant to signify the characters' sexual and emotional awakening, but the film's harsh verisimilitude—not to mention Kechiche's leering camera—undercuts any poetic qualities. Despite the pretense of sophistication, this is nothing more than a dressed-up, overlong installment of Emmanuelle. In French with subtitles. Drew Hunt NC-17, 179 min. Sat 10/12, 6:30 PM.

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Bluebird

Two families in a Maine logging town are struck by tragedy when a school bus driver (Amy Morton) fails to notice a small boy sleeping on her vehicle in subzero weather. This debut feature by writer-director Lance Edmands benefits from the dark mood created by cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes (Martha Marcy May Marlene) and impressive performances from the cast (including Amy Morton, Louisa Krause, John Slattery, Emily Meade, Margo Martindale, and Adam Driver). But the characters' personal struggles are so singular that this feels like a collection of vignettes instead of a continuous film; by the time Edmands checks in with the little boy, you may have forgotten that he's where it all began, and several loose ends never get tied up. Brianna Wellen 90 min. Edmands and Morton attend the screenings. Fri 10/11, 6:15 PM; Sun 10/13, 8:30 PM; and Mon 10/21, 1:45 PM.

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Bread and Tulips

A vacationing housewife (Licia Maglietta) is so undervalued by her family that when their tour bus departs they don't realize she's missing; she sets off for Venice, where she encounters a series of eccentric characters. Silvio Soldini, who directed this 2000 comedy, presents the fabled city as an escapist fantasy: when the housewife arrives, the monumental Piazza San Marco first appears as a reflection in her sunglasses. Bruno Ganz lends a resonant dourness to his role as an Icelandic emigre who's seen putting a noose around his neck before hearing the housewife enter his apartment; some other characters are a bit silly (like the obese plumber-detective hired to track down the protagonist), but the first half of the film, in which Maglietta gradually discovers herself as something other than a servant, is genuinely engaging. In Italian with subtitles. Fred Camper PG-13, 115 min. Soldini attends the screening. Sun 10/20, 3:30 PM.

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Burn It Up Djassa

"If society doesn't give a damn about us, we don't give a damn about society," declares one of the thugs in this colorful low-budget effort from the Ivory Coast. The hero, clad in a Bulls jersey, starts out hawking cigarettes on the street and, thanks to his skill with cards and dice, climbs up the criminal ladder; his iron devotion to his sister, whom he discourages from a life of prostitution, reinforces the story's similarity to Scarface, which has long since transcended the movies into third-world myth. Director Lonesome Solo decorates the bare-bones crime story with frequent scenes of group singing among the hoods; their syncopated rhythms and infectious call-and-response communicate the pull of gang life better than any visual image. In French and Nouchi dialect with subtitles. J.R. Jones 70 min. Sat 10/12, 1 PM; Sat 10/19, 9:30 PM; and Mon 10/21, 8:45 PM.

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Chasing Fireflies

Not many movies could live up to a title as vapid as Chasing Fireflies, but this Colombian drama comes pretty close. A churlish old water rat (Marlon Moreno), living on the Caribbean coast and guarding a salt mine, receives an unexpected visit from his puckish teenage daughter (Valentina Abril), whose mother has just passed away. This sad news constitutes not the story's premise, as you might expect, but a major plot revelation—sorry about that, but you should know going in that incident is in short supply here. Director Robert Flores Prieto makes dramatic use of his widescreen frame as he surveys the rustic seaside locale, which supplies some visual distraction from the bland two-hander. (Three if you count the old man's dog, which makes more noise than the old man does but doesn't have hands per se.) In Spanish with subtitles. J.R. Jones 102 min. Prieto attends the screenings. Wed 10/16, 8 PM; Fri 10/18, 5:30 PM; and Sat 10/19, 11:45 AM.

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Despite the Gods

Documentary maker Penny Vozniak follows Jennifer Lynch, daughter of David Lynch, as she directs Hisss, a U.S.-Indian coproduction whose shoot ran six months behind schedule. A behind-the-scenes look at a troubled project, this recalls Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe's Lost in La Mancha (2002), about Terry Gilliam's doomed fantasy The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. But whereas the earlier documentary took a fascinating look at the unforeseeable obstacles of film production, this one is a mostly boring profile of Lynch, who comes off as inconsiderate, self-absorbed, childish, and reactionary. Whether she's like this in real life or Vozniak edited the footage to make her appear that way is anyone's guess, but don't expect any insight into the filmmaking process. In English and subtitled Hindi. Tal Rosenberg 85 min. Vosniak and Lynch attend the screenings. Thu 10/17, 8:30 PM, and Fri 10/18, 5:45 PM.

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[Recommended] Domestic

This assured black comedy by Adrian Sitaru modifies the epic formalism of the Romanian new wave, with its geometrical frames and endlessly long takes, into something more digestible than recent endurance tests like Cristi Puiu's Aurora (2010). There are some marvelous comic set pieces here: in one 11-minute take, set around a kitchen table, a woman brings home a live hen for dinner, and her 12-year-old daughter bargains with the squeamish dad for spending money if she'll go into the bathroom, the open door of which is centered in the frame behind them, and kill it in the tub with a kitchen knife. The story also encompasses two other families in the same apartment building, each with its own animals in peril, and these little dramas, which play out alongside human stories of anguish and loss, underline our own fragility in a cruel world. In Romanian with subtitles. J.R. Jones 85 min. Sun 10/13, 2 PM; Sun 10/20, 8:30 PM; and Mon 10/21, 6 PM.

Dracula 3D, which director Dario Argento will present in person on Saturday, October 19.
  • Dracula 3D, which director Dario Argento will present in person on Saturday, October 19.

Dracula 3D

Italian horror master Dario Argento doesn't adapt the Bram Stoker classic so much as strip it for gory set pieces, though not even those are realized with much enthusiasm. His imagery lacks the eroticism and suggestiveness one associates with vampire myths, and there's little narrative sense holding all this together. Argento has never been known as an actor's director, but the performances here are particularly wooden: Thomas Kretschmann, in the title role, may be the least charismatic Dracula ever, and Asia Argento (an exceedingly generous daughter, apparently) shows none of her usual liveliness. Still, there's something almost charming about the pervasive schlockiness, the low-budget 3-D effects calling to mind schoolroom dioramas and spook-house rides at county fairs. With Rutger Hauer. Ben Sachs 111 min. Argento attends the screening. Sat 10/19, 11 PM.

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Floating Skyscrapers

In this bleak second feature by Polish filmmaker Tomasz Wasilewski, a closeted, ultramasculine professional swimmer (Mateusz Banasiuk) falls head over heels for a younger man (Bartosz Gelner), which complicates the athlete's relationship with an unsuspecting girlfriend and distracts him from his intense training. The guys forge ahead despite these obstacles, not to mention Poland's general antagonism toward LGBT people, though the film is hardly optimistic. Washed out cinematography, coercive camera work, and a tragic narrative stifle any sense of hope for the wayward lovers. I was discomfited by Wasilewski's clinical assessment of the characters: his hackneyed explanation for their sexual orientation (overbearing mothers, naturally) and his cold depictions of their courtship (not to mention their lovemaking) suggest a punitive attitude. In Polish with subtitles. Drew Hunt 93 min. Mon 10/21, 8:45 PM, and Wed 10/23, 5:45 PM.

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The Girls on Liberty Street

In this locally produced drama, a recent high school graduate from a poor family (Brianna Zepeda) enlists in the army and spends her last few days as a civilian dealing with her dysfunctional family, emotionally distant boyfriend, and fair-weather friends. Despite these possible motivating factors, her decision is treated with some ambiguity and the action has an existential air. A somber character study, the film transcends its sketchlike structure and amateurishness by maintaining a naturalistic tone, aided in large part by a cast of nonactors who tackle their roles in earnest. John Rangel directed. Drew Hunt 62 min. Rangel and cast members attend the screenings. Sat 10/12, 8:30 PM; Mon 10/14, 3 PM; and Tue 10/15, 6:15 PM.

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[Recommended] Grigris

Chadian writer-director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun follows up his downbeat drama A Screaming Man (2010) with this uplifting underdog story, complete with dance numbers and a sweet romantic subplot. The title character is a genial young man who's conquered a physical disability to become the most popular dancer at the local discotheque; when his stepfather falls ill and requires hospitalization, he takes up with a crime syndicate to make extra money, naively assuming he can get out whenever he wants. Haroun gracefully navigates the story through several shifts in tone; the movie begins as a naturalistic musical, veers into film noir territory, and concludes as something like a feminist parable. Consistent throughout is a spirit of warm solidarity—among Grigris's family, the discotheque regulars, even some members of the crime syndicate—that makes the good cheer all but irresistible. In French and Arabic with subtitles. Ben Sachs 96 min. Sun 10/13, 5:30 PM, and Sat 10/19, 3 PM.

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I Will Be Murdered

On May 10, 2009, attorney Rodrigo Rosenberg Marzano was cycling through Guatemala City when he was killed by a gunman on a grassy knoll. His murder touched off one of the biggest and wildest scandals in Guatemalan history, with people as high up as President Alvaro Colom implicated in the crime. Journalist David Grann told this story in his 2011 New Yorker piece "A Murder Foretold," one of the best true-crime accounts I've ever read and a virtual master class in story structure. Documentary maker Justin Webster commendably tries to duplicate Grann's narrative here, but his reenactments, featuring actors and some interview subjects, diminish the story's power, making an otherwise strong documentary seem like an episode of America's Most Wanted. In Spanish with subtitles. Tal Rosenberg 85 min. Webster attends the screenings. Tue 10/15, 6 PM, and Wed 10/16, 6:15 PM.

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Illiterate

In this Chilean drama, a woman who's concealed her illiteracy for the past 50 years (Paulina Garcia) becomes the reluctant student of a determined young teacher (Valentina Muhr). Garcia brings considerable charm to her role as the proud, stubborn old woman and an easy authenticity to the character's moments of vulnerability. Yet the characters' relationship stops just short of emotional revelation, and a supposedly triumphant conclusion ends in anticlimax, leaving us with an hour of reading lessons and too-brief narrative reprieves. Moisés Sepúlveda directed. In Spanish with subtitles. Brianna Wellen 73 min. Sepúlveda attends the screenings. Fri 10/11, 5:45 PM; Sun 10/13, 5:30 PM; and Tue 10/22, 1 PM.

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Imbabazi: The Pardon

During the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, best friends Manzi and Karemera turn enemies after Manzi embraces the Hutu Power movement and Karemera fears for his life as a persecuted Tutsi. Fifteen years later Manzi is released from prison and tries to make amends for his violent past, but neither Karemera nor the rest of their fellow villagers are interested in absolving him. Written and directed by Joel Karekezi, this Rwandan feature never flinches from showing how genocide traumatized whole communities. Despite the horrific nature of many people's acts, Karekezi advocates reconciliation and peace over revenge and acrimony, though the last point is conveyed hurriedly and sentimentally, which makes for a frustrating and disappointing third act. Tal Rosenberg 73 min. Karekezi attends the screenings. Fri 10/18, 8:30 PM; Sun 10/20, 4 PM; and Mon 10/21, 2 PM.

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Infiltrators

Using a handheld camera, Khaled Jarrar documents those Palestinians who climb over the wall blocking them from Israel, and the smugglers who make a living off them. These infiltrators suffer imprisonment, brutal beatings from guards, and the injuries that can result from dropping 20 feet to the ground, but as many of them attest, they see no other option. The progression of Jarrar's involvement is most interesting: he might start out at a distance from his subjects, with shots reminiscent of static surveillance footage, but the imagery grows in urgency and intimacy as he finds himself in the trenches with them (literally). Though the poor picture quality can make this difficult to watch, the film is redeemed by its human moments; in one scene an elderly woman makes her periodic pilgrimage to a small gap in the wall where she can speak with her daughter and grandchildren. In Arabic with subtitles. Brianna Wellen 70 min. Said attends the screenings. Sat 10/12, 8:45 PM, and Mon 10/14, 8:20 PM.

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The Invisible Collection

Adapted from a 1927 story by Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, this muted Brazilian drama concerns a rich playboy from Sao Paolo who decides to turn his life around after a friend dies of a drug overdose. He takes a job with his family's art dealership and travels to the countryside, hoping to persuade a reclusive old landowner to sell his collection of rare prints. Predictably, the natural setting makes the protagonist more soulful, and the old man teaches him a thing or two about integrity. This isn't quite as maudlin as it might sound, thanks to some nuanced characterization and the understated visual approach of director Bernard Attal. In Portuguese with subtitles. Ben Sachs 89 min. Attal attends the screening. Thu 10/17, 8:40 PM; Fri 10/18, 6:15 PM; and Tue 10/22, 3:30 PM.

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[Recommended] La Jaula de Oro

Three young Guatemalans head for the U.S., join up with an Indian roughly their age, and encounter every conceivable obstacle as they try to penetrate the border from Mexico: immigration officials, corrupt cops, cartels selling migrant women into prostitution, kidnappers seizing immigrants with American contacts, heartless coyotes transporting people over the border, and patrolling Minutemen. Directed by Diego Quemada-Diez, this Mexican drama might call to mind El Norte (1983), Gregory Nava's Oscar-nominated picture about Guatemalans trying to enter the U.S. illegally, but the minimal dialogue and handheld camera make it subtler and far less melodramatic. Working with so little dialogue, the young actors are that much more impressive, and by avoiding any overt editorializing, Quemada-Diez creates a haunting and effective vision of illegal immigration in all its gruesomeness. In Spanish and Tzotzil with subtitles. 116 min. Tal Rosenberg 116 min. Quemada-Diez attends the screenings. Wed 10/16, 8 PM; Thu 10/17, 6 PM; and Tue 10/22, 1:15 PM.

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Lasting

This Polish-Spanish coproduction strives for the elemental power of silent melodrama, but its characterization is vague and its emotional displays register as merely hysterical. Two Polish college students fall in love with each other while working summer jobs in Spain, but a heavy-handed plot device forces the boy to end the affair prematurely. The girl falls into a debilitating malaise and so does the movie, grinding to a halt once the characters return to Poland. Things eventually pick up again, thanks to a few more contrivances, and the film concludes with an overwrought epiphany that feels totally unearned. Jacek Borcuch directed his own script. In Polish and Spanish with subtitles. Ben Sachs 89 min. Sat 10/12, 3:45 PM; Mon 10/14, 5:45 PM; and Tue 10/15, 3 PM.

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[Recommended] Like Father, Like Son

A workaholic architect and his wife learn that their five-year-old son was switched at birth and is being raised by a slovenly blue-collar couple who share very few of their values. This moving drama, one of the best to date from Japanese writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda, follows the relationship between these two families over the course of a year, presenting the ebb and flow of their lives with such care that even minute changes to their routines have an unsettling impact. Kore-eda and his actors realize the characters in novelistic depth, conveying sympathy even when subtly critiquing their behavior; and as usual, Kore-eda proves to be a gifted, unsentimental director of children. In Japanese with subtitles. Ben Sachs 120 min. Wed 10/16, 6 PM, and Sat 10/19, 7 PM.

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[Recommended] The Major

Like many film noir classics, this down-and-dirty Russian drama takes place in a closed system that traps both victim and victimizer. Speeding down a snowy road, a police major (Denis Shvedov) kills a seven-year-old boy right in front of his mother; one of the cop's colleagues (Yuri Bykov) initiates a cover-up and coerces the mother (Ilya Isayev) into signing a statement that she was at fault. The situation begins to unravel amid the precinct's culture of violence and intimidation, until the guilt-ridden major finds himself on the mother's side and in great danger. Bykov not only directed his own script but edited and scored the film, showing considerable discipline in both instances; this is his second feature, and a promising one at that. In Russian with subtitles. J.R. Jones 99 min. Sat 10/12, 6:15 PM; Tue 10/15, 8 PM; and Sat 10/19, 11:15 AM.

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Medium Cool

Haskell Wexler's McLuhan-esque essay on media ethics (1969), centering on a young news cameraman (Robert Forster) who tries to retain his detachment as he's caught up in the events of the 1968 Democratic convention. The movie has a lot on its mind—too much to be bothered with the niceties of narrative construction and character. The ideas expressed aren't original or very forceful, but there's an urgency in them that makes the film seem important and immediate. At its best it's a specific emotional response to a specific emotional situation, sharp if not lucid. With Verna Bloom and Peter Bonerz. Dave Kehr 110 min. Wexler attends the screening. Sat 10/19, 3:30 PM.

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Melaza

Set in a depressed Cuban village, this gentle comedy centers on a young married couple trying to maintain a happy life despite the misfortune all around them. The movie transpires mainly in the sort of unemphatic long takes familiar from much recent art cinema, and the humor can be gratingly precious (the schoolteacher husband gives swimming lessons in an empty pool). Yet the sweet-tempered tone feels sincere, the performers are appealing, and some of the visual compositions suggest the beginnings of an idiosyncratic style. The first feature by writer-director Carlos Lechuga, this inspires hope for a second. In Spanish with subtitles. Ben Sachs 80 min. Lechuga attends the screenings. Fri 10/11, 4 PM; Fri 10/18, 8 PM; and Sun 10/20, 6:30 PM.

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The Miracle

A village priest (Peter Plaugborg) periodically rolls his paraplegic wife (Sonja Richter) in front of their congregation and commands her to walk, but she fails him and God every time (the miracle is that she doesn't slug him). As a young woman she longed to be a dancer, and her hunger for life is reawakened when her old performing partner (Ulrich Thomsen), who still carries a torch for her, arrives back in town. Tastefully anguished and overripe with religious irony, this Danish drama by Simon Staho may call to mind Ordet (1955), Carl Dreyer's masterpiece about the power of faith, but the love triangle, with its blunt dichotomy between physical delight and spiritual flagellation, grows dumber with every reel. By the time the priest is dragging his wife around the church on her dead legs, to be halted only by the tremulous voice of their little son, you may find your faith less wanting than your credulity. 100 min. J.R. Jones 100 min. Staho attends the screenings. Sat 10/12, 6:15 PM; Mon 10/14, 8:15 PM; and Sun 10/20, 11:45 AM.

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[Recommended] The Missing Picture

Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh uses meticulously carved and painted clay figurines to recount his soul-crushing experiences as a subject of forced collectivization under the Khmer Rouge in the late 70s. His large-scale dioramas are magnificent, and his characters' hollowed-out faces are haunting, paired on the soundtrack with background noise and Panh's simple, perfectly articulated voice-over narration. The challenge of making a 90-minute feature from still figures is enormous nevertheless, and Pahn meets it with considerable ingenuity. He incorporates archival footage of the Khmer Rouge putting people through their endless paces in the rice fields, superimposing his own figures into the action, and eliminates the fourth wall with close-ups of his own hands as he carves and paints the little figurines (dozens and dozens of which appear onscreen). I could say the movie requires some patience, but in fact it commands patience with its humbling tale of a boy being cruelly torn from one life and forced into another one of extreme privation. 92 min. J.R. Jones 92 min. Tue 10/22, 6:15 PM, and Wed 10/23, 8:30 PM.

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[Recommended] Northwest

Directed by Michael Noer, this isn't quite the Danish Goodfellas, but as in the Scorsese film, the protagonist is a young man lured into the underworld, first as a small-stakes burglar, then as a driver for the outfit's escort service, and eventually as an assassin. The hoods here are so small-time that a life of crime never seems intoxicating: the Copenhagen winter is bleak, and even the most accomplished criminals live in crappy houses and drive used cars. Noer's approach to the gangster film isn't radically different, but the characters are unpredictable, the pacing is brisk, and the well-timed sharp turns kept my interest throughout. In Danish with subtitles. Tal Rosenberg 91 min. Sat 10/12, 2 PM; Tue 10/22, 6:30 PM; and Wed 10/23, 6 PM.

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A Pact

Coincidence, contrivance, and cliche mar this German thriller about a love triangle that's been festering for decades, but if you're OK with that, you may find it enjoyably malevolent. In high school, princely young Georg hands over his blond girlfriend, Anna, to his buddy Paul, exacting a promise that one day Paul will return her. Fast forward to their middle age, when Paul (Mark Waschke) and Anna (Marie Bäumer) are married with children and Georg (dead-eyed Sylvester Grosch, who played Goebbels in Inglourious Basterds) reappears as Paul's new boss at a big investment house. French writer-director Denis Dercourt (The Page Turner) can't bear to leave it at that, so Georg eventually becomes a Faustian figure, in keeping with the wall-to-wall score of somber string music. With Sophie Rois (Tom Tykwer's Three) and Saskia Rosendahl (Lore). In German with subtitles. J.R. Jones 83 min. Dercourt attends the screening. Fri 10/18, 8:15 PM; Sun 10/20, 8:30 PM; and Mon 10/21, 1 PM.

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La Paz

In our screwed-up age, the protagonist released from a mental institution has become a familiar movie archetype (Sling Blade, Silver Linings Playbook, etc, etc), posing the simple question of whether he'll return to the funny farm or make a life for himself on the outside. This Argentinean drama by Santiago Loza can't do much with the idea, partly because its pampered hero is so colorless and unsympathetic; there's never the sense, critical to stories like these, that he's actually saner than everyone else. Once he's released from the facility (where he's been sleeping with one of the nurses, apparently), his mother buys him a Suzuki motorcycle and his father introduces him to target shooting (not exactly a wise move). His dependent relationship with the family's Bolivian maid is the most interesting element here, though any intended observation about class differences is so muted that it barely registers. In Spanish with subtitles. J.R. Jones 71 min. Fri 10/18, 2 PM; Sun 10/20, 4 PM; and Tue 10/22, 8 PM.

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The Priest's Children

A convenience store owner and an idealistic priest wage a secret war on contraception by puncturing holes in every condom for sale in their remote island community. That's the setup for this Serbian-Croatian coproduction, which begins as a pat (though agreeable) anticlerical satire before taking several surprising turns, some of them into rather dark subject matter (one of the most audacious jokes alludes to ethnic cleansing). Like the comedies of Spanish filmmaker Alex de la Iglesia (The Day of the Beast, The Last Circus), this maintains a bright, cartoonish tone no matter how outlandish or gruesome the story gets, with the growing disparity between form and content providing some of the better laughs. Vinko Brešan directed. In Croatian with subtitles. Ben Sachs 93 min. Brešan attends the screenings. Wed 10/16, 8:15 PM, and Thu 10/17, 5:45 PM.

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Purgatorio

Named for the second part of Dante's Divine Comedy, in which the poet travels through purgatory, this documentary examines life on the U.S.-Mexican border. Director Rodrigo Reyes intersperses talking-head interviews with images of Mexico's landscape that are stunning and at times jarring—early on, we see a drug dealer's limp body slouched in an alley. The unnamed interview subjects range from the desperate to the hopeful and serve to humanize the drug-trade violence and immigration issues plaguing the area. Looking at both sides of the border, Reyes offers a well-rounded perspective on a commonly tackled subject. In English and subtitled Spanish. Brianna Wellen 80 min. Reyes attends the screenings. Tue 10/22, 8:30 PM, and Wed 10/23, 6:30 PM.

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Salvo

The first third of this Italian thriller is practically wordless, yet it's completely arresting. A mafia hit man (Saleh Bakri) realizes he's being tailed and rushes his pursuers, turning the tables on them and initiating a gripping chase that leads him to the home of the gangster who ordered the ambush. When the hero sneaks in to take his revenge, he finds the man's blind sister (Sara Serraiocco), who senses an intruder; an extended, impossibly tense cat-and-mouse sequence follows before the hit man is forced to kidnap her. Eventually this all settles into a routine moralistic drama and on-the-nose Catholic allegory, but the formal inventiveness persists. First-time filmmakers Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza directed, showing real promise. In Italian with subtitles. Drew Hunt 105 min. Sun 10/20, 6:15 PM, and Tue 10/22, 8 PM.

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Soul

A young man in Taipei, claiming that a strange soul has taken over his body, returns to the care of his father (Jimmy Wang Yu, a star of martial arts films in the 1960s and '70s), who lives atop a remote mountain and doesn't seem too normal himself. This Taiwanese feature might be described as a horror-comedy, though it's more eerie than scary and more peculiar than funny. Whatever it is, the movie certainly keeps you on your toes with its plot twists, suspense sequences, and unconventional editing patterns. This marks a radical change of pace for writer-director Chung Mong-Hong, whose previous feature, The Fourth Portrait (2010), was a 400 Blows-like drama about a ten-year-old orphan. I was fascinated by the movie's quirky inventiveness, but it's likely an acquired taste. In Mandarin with subtitles. Ben Sachs 112 min. Mon 10/21, 5:30 PM; Tue 10/22, 8:45 PM; and Wed 10/23, 1 PM.

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[Recommended] Stranger by the Lake

A young gay man (Pierre Deladonchamps) finds himself wrapped up in a murder plot in this beguiling thriller, a career-best effort by French writer-director Alain Guiraudie. Unifying time, place, and action as Bergman might, Guiraudie confines this to a single location, a secluded lakeshore where gay men swim, tan, and dip into the nearby woods for anonymous (usually unprotected) sex. But the director also shares with Hitchcock a sense that sex can bring deadly peril, the tone shifting from serene to sinister. The story offers a commentary on safe-sex practices, but rather than proselytize, Guiraudie communicates his ideas in lush landscape photography and striking point-of-view shots worthy of Rear Window. In French with subtitles. Drew Hunt 100 min. Fri 10/18, 9:15 PM, and Sun 10/20, 4:10 PM.

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[Recommended] Stray Dogs

Tsai Ming-liang's bittersweet feature echoes two touchstones of the silent cinema—Chaplin's The Kid (1921) and Ozu's Passing Fancy (1933)—with its tale of a homeless man (Tsai regular Lee Kang-sheng) raising two small children on the outskirts of Taipei. Though periodically funny, this is more despairing than either of its models, concluding with a long silent sequence that's as devastating in its anticlimax as the apocalyptic imagery of Tsai's The Hole (1998) or The Wayward Cloud (2005). The Taiwanese writer-director has long been a master of conveying loneliness—most powerfully, through cockeyed compositions that make contemporary architecture look like an alien landscape. Here he broadens his focus to consider the disconnect between the larger society and the people it neglects, and the effect is tremendous. In Mandarin with subtitles. Ben Sachs 136 min. Fri 10/11, 8:30 PM, and Sun 10/13, 12:30 PM.

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Tanta Agua

The title of this low-key Uruguayan comedy translates as "too much water," which also sums up its central running gag. A divorced middle-aged father vacations with his emotionally withholding son and daughter (of whom his ex-wife has custody), only to be thwarted in all his plans by a never-ending rainstorm. Alternately dignified and inept, the loser protagonist is familiar from numerous recent Uruguayan comedies, though frumpy-looking Nestor Guzzini (who appeared in the similar-minded Acne and Gigante) hits enough charming grace notes to make the character distinctive. Ana Guevara and Leticia Jorge wrote and directed this sweet, modest character portrait, which bogs down only in its needlessly arty visual flourishes. In Spanish with subtitles. Ben Sachs 103 min. Sat 10/12, 4 PM, and Sun 10/13, 6 PM.

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Trapped

Nazanin, a young woman studying medicine in Tehran, rooms with rebellious shop girl Sahar and gets pulled into her sketchy relationships and personal travails. Written and directed by Parvis Shahbazi, whose Deep Breath played at the festival in 2003, this Iranian feature offers some worthwhile insights into the social strictures of the Islamic Revolution—as a woman, Nazanin is constantly browbeaten and cheated by men—yet the central relationship, between the two women, is hard to fathom. As roommates, they get off to such an ugly start that Nazanin's subsequent devotion to Sahar doesn't really wash, especially as the latter character begins to reveal one bad decision after another. In Farsi with subtitles. J.R. Jones 96 min. Sat 10/19, 6 PM; Mon 10/21, 8:15 PM; and Tue 10/22, 3:30 PM.

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Yema

Amid the civil turmoil in Algeria, a woman living quietly in the countryside mourns the death of her son, a soldier killed by Islamic extremists. Her other son, himself an extremist, asks an injured soldier to pose as a farmhand and protect his mother and his newborn son from wandering military forces, and the mother and soldier bond as they work to revive a dying garden. Dialogue is scarce, but that's just as well; the captivating camera work and strong, silent performances prove more effective as storytelling devices. Director-star Djamila Sahraoui brings a strong female perspective to a world dominated by men; the result is a beautiful story about the cycle of death and new life. In Arabic with subtitles. Brianna Wellen 90 min. Sat 10/12, 1:30 PM; Sun 10/20, 2:45 PM; and Tue 10/22, 5:45 PM.

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