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A Guide to the 23rd Chicago International Film Festival

So Many Movies, So Little Time: Film festivals come in all shapes and sizes. Ours is relatively pluralistic and amorphous, for better and for worse.

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The 23rd Chicago International Film Festival, running from Monday, October 19, through Sunday, November 8, promises 131 separate programs, not counting repeats. As a newcomer to this event who has attended about a dozen other international film festivals, most of them several years in a row, I can offer at this point only a single, broad generalization about what seems to make Chicago's relatively pluralistic and amorphous, for better and for worse.

Although film festivals come in all shapes and sizes, one can generally make a loose distinction between the free-for-alls, where anything and everything is likely to turn up (Cannes, London, Los Angeles's Filmex), and the ones with a more discernible selection process that tend to project a more critical and polemical profile (Toronto, New York, Rotterdam). By reputation and to all appearances, Chicago belongs more in the first category than in the second. What this means in practice is that the shopping spectator has to become his or her own critic while browsing through the festival schedule, rather than trust in either fate or some imagined philosophical unity in director Michael Kutza's selections.

Practically speaking, with a festival this size, taking some initiative is what everyone has to do anyway. Unless you intend to see half a dozen films a day for nearly three weeks, it becomes necessary to carve out your own piece of the action. You might want to concentrate on the festival's designated subcategories--Latin American films, Asian films, Italian films, golden oldies from Paramount, contemporary world cinema--but be forewarned that even there the quality of what you see is likely to range from the sublime to the awful. Any festival that elects to show the latest Claude Lelouch as well as the latest Alain Resnais can't be accused of having any particular ax to grind.

As a partial aid to festivalgoers, we have endeavored to round up as many critical reviews of the movies as possible, commissioned either from writers who have seen the films at other festivals or from reviewers who have more recently attended this festival's press screenings. (Overall, for the festival's three weeks, we have drawn on the critical talents of 20 writers from nine cities--Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Toronto, and Washington--although others may conceivably join the fray before were done.) When we couldn't get a review, we resorted to a brief description, drawn from the festival's own blurb if we had nowhere else to turn. Having seen only a handful of the films myself at this point, I can only add my major recommendations--Alain Resnais' Melo, Leos Carax's Bad Blood, Ernst Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise, Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity, and Clarence Badger's It--scheduled for the weeks ahead.

In the meantime, a few basic ground rules: Screenings are at the Biograph, 2433 N. Lincoln, and the Music Box, 3733 N. Southport, except for opening night at the Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State. Tickets can be purchased at the theater box office the day of the screening, starting one hour prior to the first screening, at the Film Festival stores at 1551 N. Wells and 1157 N. State, or by calling 664-3400 (credit cards only). General admission to each program (with some exceptions--see below) is $6.50, $5 for Cinema/Chicago members. Exceptions: (A) All weekday 5 PM screenings are $4 general admission, $3 for Cinema/Chicago members. (B) Opening night is another ball game entirely: the movie cost: $5-$15, and a cool $150 gets you into both the movie and the party.

For further information, call 644-3400 (questions) or 644-5454 (24 hour update/hotline), or listen to radio stations WBBM (78 AM) or WNUA (95.5 FM), or watch WMAQ TV (Channel Five) for updates and coverage. Happy hunting! --Jonathan Rosenbaum

MONDAY, OCTOBER 19

Interview

In Fellini's latest film, the discovery by Kafka's Karl Rossman of Amerika is transformed, by that alchemy peculiar to the maestro, into the discovery of Rome's studios at Cinecitta by a young journalist named Federico Fellini. A Japanese film crew comes to interview Fellini, who's shooting tests and scouting locations for his version of Kafka's Amerika; so he obligingly and quite literally re-creates his past. Interview sounds like nothing so much as a typical Fellini film. Yet, perhaps because he himself is so specifically and squarely at the center of it, it's a curiously objective film, with none of the swaggering self-consciousness that usually emblazons his multiple-personae curtain calls. Despite a nostalgic first tram trip to Cinecitta, past elephants, waterfalls, Indians in war paint, and blossom-blown bridal processions (equal parts Bunuel and Universal Tours), Interview is less a roller-coaster ride down memory lane than a celebration of the process, the work of re-creating the past, a work rooted in a vital present tense. Thus, in the film's piece de resistance--the reunion of Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg in the latter's secluded villa--the two aging stars manage to steal the show from their younger selves, raising their glasses in wry salute as the radiant image of their dance in front of the fountain from La dolce vita fades into applause. Interview almost makes one a believer in the adage that youth is wasted on the young. (RS) (Chicago Theatre, 7:00)

TUESDAY, OCTOBER 20

A Better Tomorrow

Slightly reminiscent of the work of both Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone in its strategy of poetic mayhem and its mixture of horseplay and savagery, John Woo's A Better Tomorrow excels in prolonged and cathartic scenes of extraordinary violence. A gangster film that holds the Hong Kong box office record, A Better Tomorrow is, on the other hand, thoroughly Eastern; it does not celebrate or elevate the loner, but reveres the family with a fanatic idealism. Ho, a hardened gang member on his way up in Hong Kong's criminal underworld, is pitted against his adored younger brother Kit, a rookie cop. Even when Ho tries to go straight, Kit turns away from him in adolescent righteousness, because he blames Ho for the death of their father. Brotherhood is the theme in several ways as the bond of dependency and trust between fellow gangsters is treated with a romantic passion that borders on eroticism. The final shootout takes place on the Hong Kong docks at night, by the light of exploding oil drums--an orgy of destruction that brings reconciliation at the point of death, and a final, deliriously excessive round of bloodshed. A must-see, although not for the squeamish. (BS) (Music Box, 5:00)

Visa U.S.A.

Filmmaking in Colombia is still at a relatively artisanal stage. The country produces about eight movies a year, some of which are coproductions with Cuba. Pictures were made in Colombia as early as 1914, but when sound came in, the primitive technical infrastructure could not deal with it: production simply halted for a decade until the first talkies were made there--in 1939. The big Colombian breakthrough film was Tiempo de morir (Time to Die), made in 1985, which won two major awards at the Rio festival and was well received at New York's Latino festival. In spite of its Gabriel Garcia Marquez screenplay, it's basically a clunky revenge western. Far more palatable is Visa U.S.A. (written and directed by Lisandro Duque Bernal), a bittersweet romance shot largely in Sevilla, the director's hometown. A young couple, hassled by the girl's snobbish parents, aim to escape and find fame and happiness in New York. They get no farther than the Bogota airport. The irresistible teenage leads, Armando Gutierrez and Marcela Agudelo, have real star quality, and all of the roles, down to the smallest, are well inhabited. This moving tale of lost illusions is perked by a lovely score and lively songs. It received the India Catalina Best Film award at the 1986 Cartagena Film Festival--and fully deserved it. (ES) (Biograph, 6:00)

Promised Land

Michael Hoffman's film about four youths growing up in a small town in Idaho was produced at Robert Redford's Sundance Institute. (Biograph, 6:00)

The Big Parade

This is a very, very strange film. It could be described as a Chinese Full Metal Jacket--Chan Kiage's virtuosic choreography of troops in training certainly rivals and even surpasses at times Kubrick's own. Whether tracing the excitement of new recruits amid the inchoate camaraderie of barracks-room intimacy or the subtler irony of hours-long stock-still troops wavering under the pitiless heat waves, The Big Parade is throughout a fascinating abstract study in mass movement. Unfortunately, it does not remain an abstract study. As soon as it ventures into the Dawn Patrol territory of the officer's divided loyalty between his leadership responsibilities on the one hand and his affection and compassion for his men on the other, the film becomes as stilted and unconvincing at rest as it is innovative and alive on the move. The problem of the film may well be the subject of the film--The Big Parade is an attempt to redeem the military in a culture that apparently relegates the profession several steps below janitor or bum. The solution is a weird cross between a somewhat reluctant discipline-for-its-own-sake Olympics tryout and a hey-kids-let's-put-on-a-show Mickey Rooney MGMer--in other words, a mightily controlled, graceful yet grotesque, military parade. (RS) (Music Box, 7:00)

The Feldmann Case

In October 1942, after the capture of their son, Jacob and Rakel Feldmann, middle-aged Jewish clothing merchants in Oslo, decided to flee. They were murdered and robbed by members of the Norwegian resistance who were ostensibly leading them across the border into neutral Sweden. Weighted down with stones and submerged in Scream Pond, their bodies were found almost five years later, and their case was reopened. First-time director Bente Erichsen has based her script about the investigation and subsequent trial on Sigurd Senje's book Echo From Scream Pond, and her film is a sober and straightforward account of a troubling incident that still sticks in the craw of many Norwegians. (The less controversial domestic title of the film is Over grensen, or Over the Border.) Although the Jewish population of Norway in 1940 was relatively small (1,800), nearly half of them died in German concentration camps, and the ambiguous complicity of the resistance in the fate of these two individuals--as well as the taciturnity about this crime on the part of family and friends, as encountered by a police detective and journalist in 1947--are the focus of this disturbing film. (JR) (Biograph, 8:00)

Sophia

Seventeen-year-old Pedro is a typical middle-class high school student who one day meets Sophia, a woman more than twice his age who's on the run from the military police. Feeling sorry for her, Pedro hides her, and within a short time romance appears; meanwhile, government repression of suspected subversives increases, while Pedro's parents wonder why his grades are dropping. The "life under the junta" film seems to have become a staple of the Argentine cinema in recent years, yet here the political subplot seems like excess baggage--it never really connects with the "coming of age" story that forms the core of the film. Alejandro Doria is a talented director, and the scenes between the mismatched lovers are artfully handled. There's also a winning performance by the always terrific Hector Alterio (The Official Story) as Pedro's father, beaming with a true macho spirit over his son's "triumph"--despite its possible ramifications. (RP) (Biograph, 8:00)

Unfinished Business

A seemingly endless theatrical paradox--life in and outside the theater--provides the setting for actress/director Viveca Lindfors's first effort, a "drama" of life, stage, infidelity, and aging. An international theater festival's 20th anniversary provides the excuse for festival director Helena's playwright/genius ex-husband to return with a much younger actress-protegee in tow. What follows is a lot of acting out as everyone--the actress, ex-husband, other woman, son, photojournalist, and granddaughter--reassesses the others' positions in this extended international postnuclear family. At 67 minutes running time, Unfinished Business might be too short to judge the breadth of Lindfors's cinematic abilities, but her acting alone can make the time almost fly. (NR) (Music Box, 9:30)

Manuela's Loves

A first film by Genevieve LeFebre, long a producer in France and elsewhere, Manuela's Loves weaves the stories of three women of different generations into a mosaic that attempts to speak of changing horizons for women in the postwar era. The eldest, Bacha (well played by Alida Valli), went through a Nazi concentration camp, an experience that left her physically shattered and with a deep mistrust for others. The other two, Manuela and Claude, represent different sides of the postwar experience; the hardship of the slow reconstruction on one hand, and the more carefree, prosperous times on the other. It's an ambitious project, yet despite occasional sags in the action the film never completely loses interest, mainly due to the strength of the leading actresses. (RP) (Biograph, 10:00)

Starlight Hotel

A soporific road movie about a runaway girl (Greer Robson) and a rebellious worker in flight from the law (Peter Phelps) during the Depression, this New Zealand film, despite some picturesque locations, is essentially defeated by colorless acting and a mediocre script. Directed by Sam Pillsbury, with a screenplay by Grant Hinden Miller based on his own novel, The Dream Mongers. (JR) (Biograph, 10:00)

WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 21

Animation

A collection of short films from Brazil, Czechoslovakia, Great Britain, Hungary, Sweden, the U.S., and the U.S.S.R. (Music Box, 5:00)

Macu

A film from Venezuela by Solveing Hadogesteijn. No other information is available. (Biograph, 6:00)

Dragon's Food

A Swiss/West German production set in Hamburg, Jan Schutte's black-and-white film, which recently showed at the Venice Film Festival, deals with illegal immigrants--in particular, a Chinese waiter and a Pakistani flower peddler who try to open a restaurant together. (Biograph, 6:00)

Susman

Shyam Benegal's feature from India dramatizes the contrast between old and new life-styles in its depiction of a family drawn into stealing, cheating, and bribery. (Music Box, 7:00)

Francesca

We never meet Francesca but that's not the point. We learn everything we need or want to know about this convent-raised orphan's incredible rise, fall, and rise again through the wonderful and almost believable reminiscences of nuns, lovers, and colleagues. Indeed, that Francesca's celebrated film career (remember Fellini's Francesca degli angeli ?), her journey from snake charmer to rural deity, or Francesca herself don't actually exist is also beside the point. Verena Rudolph's first feature film engagingly straddles "docudrama" and slapstick while boasting a faultless cast, very funny stories, and a "reunion" of Fellini neorealist actors. What more could you want? (NR) (Biograph, 8:00)

A Walk on the Moon

It's 1969, and a hairy young Peace Corps volunteer (Kevin Anderson) arrives in a barren, blasted Colombian village, ready to bring JFK and the movies to a handful of godforsaken locals. The villagers don't really care much, however, and his idealism is cooled by a pair of disillusioned harbingers of the coming Big Chill, a schoolteacher and her zonked-out husband, Anderson's predecessors as Corps workers. Director Raphael Silver's depiction of Anderson's attempt to bring water to the surrounding moonscape seems intended to conjure memories of 1930s union movies and Our Daily Bread, but A Walk on the Moon lurches more often into counterculture (or, more accurately, postcounterculture) cliche; particularly familiar is the standard-issue third-world madonna who provides the doomed love interest. Oddly enough, while no giant leap for mankind, the film is eventually more compelling than the sum of its parts--its sense of real despair, in any event, is quite persuasive. (RH) (Biograph, 8:00)

Friends Forever

Stefan Henszelman's Danish film dramatizes the conflicts of a 16-year-old boy trying to decide whether he's gay or straight. (Music Box, 9:30)

Feelings: Mirta From Liniers to Istanbul

When I was in school in the early 70s, there was a special brand of female student who hung around political militants and ended up as muses, mothers, cooks, typists, and occasional bed companions. Their own political input was practically nonexistent: they were silent at meetings, and their votes counted as replicas of those of their mates. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there was the "pasionaria": whether she was sleeping around or, more likely, not sleeping at all, she was verbal, articulate, often angry, often holding on to a minority position, and the militants of her own group were in awe of her. Feelings: Mirta From Liniers to Istanbul (Jorge Coscia, 1987) demonstrates that, if such women could also be found in Argentina in the 70s, they didn't improve on the pattern. Mirta, a lower-middle-class blond twit, is picked up by a dark, intense macho student shortly before the military coup. While the "pasionaria" (who doubles here as "the other woman") has a breakdown, Mirta follows her male to exile in Sweden, where they share the troubles and tribulations of a community of picturesque--and penniless--Argentine emigres. Mirta adapts, learning Swedish, while the macho has a breakdown, and leaves for Spain. Mirta meets a sympathetic Turkish revolutionary, who fulfills her dreams, taking her to Istanbul, to his home and comrades, and they live happily ever after (and baby makes three). I don't want to say that the film is totally uninteresting: its depiction of the milieu of Argentine refugees is moving and accurate. Too bad Mirta isn't a more exciting character. (BR) (Biograph, 10:00)

Warm Nights on a Slow Moving Train

Not only is this train warm and slow moving, but it's infested with fat, unattractive men who complain a lot. Thank goodness winsome, elusive Wendy Hughes is on board or this Australian production would be as dreary as the Amtrak run to Philadelphia. Hughes portrays Jenny, a schoolteacher who uses her commuting time profitably by turning tricks with the paunchy, self-pitying bar-car crowd. Jenny's gimmick is to embody each loser's dream girl by means of tacky wig and wardrobe changes, and Hughes for a while is able to engender in this role some mystery, resonance, and credibility. But when director/writer Bob Ellis saddles her with a morphine-addicted, wheelchair-bound brother and entangles her in a covert plot to rub out a socialist politician, the baggage becomes too much to bear and Hughes, too, just goes along for the ride. Also distinguishing the film is a puckishly malevolent performance by Colin Friels as a covert operative and more shots of lonely trains coming around the bend at sundown than you will ever need to see again. Ellis, whose screenplays include Paul Cox's Man of Flowers and Cactus, achieves in his second directorial effort a drab cross between Ken Russell's Crimes of Passion and Wim Wenders's The American Friend, but achieves neither the gleeful ribaldry of the former nor the layered angst of the latter. (PK) (Biograph, 10:00)

THURSDAY, OCTOBER 22

. . . And There Was a Village

An Indian film made in the Malayalam language, G. Aravindan's gentle satire is about a landlord in a remote Indian village who is determined to introduce electricity to the community. (Music Box, 5:00)

Ngati

Billed as the first feature film to have been both written and directed by Maori tribespeople, Ngati (pronounced nahti) is a simple, earnest look at the political and cultural resurgence of the Maori of New Zealand at the end of World War II. Knowing his audience, director Barry Barclay creates a white, "outsider" narrator for the events he describes, a young Australian doctor fresh out of school but longing for some cultural roots. At first he acts arrogantly toward the native New Zealanders, but sure enough he's eventually so seduced by their culture that he decides to stay. Despite their evident intimacy with Maori culture, the filmmakers unhappily seem forced to rely upon the most hackneyed of subplots and characters, culled from several generations of third-world filmmakers: a young Maori returns from the city and finds it difficult to readapt to traditional ways, local businessmen threaten to cut off the sole means of employment, etc. As a result, the film seems somewhat pale, a thin veil wrapped around an important story and a fascinating culture. (RP) (Biograph, 6:00)

Wedding in Galilee

This third feature of Nazareth-born, Belgian-based Michel Khleifi, represents the director's return to his native Arab land--and the surprise discovery at Cannes this year. Wedding in Galilee captures a state of absolute, unremitting tension. The patriarch of a Palestinian village under Israeli military law decides his son's wedding cannot be postponed any longer and accepts the compromise of an Israeli presence at the festivities. He proceeds, determined to host a celebration to end all celebrations--which it almost does. Between the young Arab hotheads with their daggers-in-the-rice-dish plots, and the hair-trigger Israeli commandos, interpreting every gesture as a prelude to war, everybody's masculinity threatened at every turn, it's only the women who seem to know better. In their mute solidarity, their curiously sensual promise of communion--or is it surrender?--they seem to offer an alternative of cultural exchange. For beyond the paranoia and the hostility, what registers most vividly is the strength of a people and a culture that have survived aeons of change and contradiction, imposing order--as the camera does--by a rigorous internal sense of harmony. Somehow, against all odds, a sense of purpose and a will for clarity prevail. (RS) (Biograph, 6:00)

One Glance and Love Breaks Out

Jutta Bruckner's West German film features a woman's internal dialogue about love. Figures of women with varying degrees of dependence on and independence from men become part of her reverie. (Music Box, 7:00)

Train of Dreams

Longtime documentarian John N. Smith's feature-length Sitting in Limbo solidified his reputation as a film artist who works from life. Like that earlier feature, also made through Canada's National Film Board, Train of Dreams concerns young people, and is performed by nonprofessional actors working in improvisational situations from a guideline script. Tony (non-pro Jason St. Amour does an astonishing job) is a chip on the shoulder of society, a kid who takes his attitude with him to reform school. His passage there and back is a trip inside the minds of kids robbed of dreams and through the agencies whose embattled staffs are trying to give their dreams back. Free of cant or moralizing, the film's integrity and interest are drawn from the documentarylike look at character in crisis, which documentary itself could never catch. (PA) (Biograph, 8:00)

The Beat

The roots of true hipness are reexamined--but ultimately get a bad rap--in The Beat, directed by Paul Mones. A cluster of thickheaded street kids unwittingly train for adulthood through their day-to-day leadership selection (the biggest bullies) and conflict resolution (convenient sexism and racism). Their teachers are, of course, fools. Along comes an idiot savant, a twerpy boy-thing with a natural talent for spouting beat lyricism--all of it bad. Narratively, however, his ear is attuned to the universe's clockworks, so he teaches the others a few things. The Beat would be fun, at least, if there wasn't so much embarrassing, self-conscious mythmaking going on. (TK) (Biograph, 8:00)

Miss Mona

French actor Jean Cornmet stars in a French film about an aging transvestite who picks up an illegal immigrant. Directed by Mehdi Charef, this film was shown at the Berlin Film Festival. (Music Box, 9:30)

The Flyer

The story of an insurance company trainee whose hobby is hang gliding seems an unusually leaden idea for a feature film: at best one might expect a feeble Kafkaesque fable of regimentation versus individual aspiration made even more tedious by lots of aerial photography. In fact The Flyer, a debut film by West German filmmaker Erwin Keusch, overcomes its contrivances and cliches and through subtlety, wit, and audacity ascends to something not seen in German films since early Herzog--the visionary. Young Hans Klinger, played with chipmunky appeal by Martin May, counters the dehumanization of his post in a Coburg insurance company by dreaming of flying off Bolivian Mount Palomani to set a world record. He picks away at the enormous funding needed for the endeavor with the occasional insurance fraud until a Berlin journalist named Rita features him in a story. Hans dumps his horsey teenage girlfriend for the older Rita and the two hustle up corporate sponsoring until the wings of Hans's kite are covered with endorsements. Pressured by celebrity, Hans finds his little dream transformed into a tawdry media event. When at last the scene changes from provincial Germany to the stark isolation of the Andes, and Keusch's visuals alter from the coy to the darkly ironic, Klinger's hobby has taken on the dimensions of a redemptive ordeal ending in a scene that is both ambiguous and triumphant. (PK) (Biograph, 10:00)

The Realm of Fortune

North American audiences have discovered Arturo Ripstein with Castle of Purity (1974) and especially Without Limits (1980), in which a middle-aged transvestite, "La Japonesita," challenges in a dance of desire and death an obnoxious truck driver who wants to molest his (her?) daughter. The Realm of Fortune (1986) depicts with a similar mixture of grim realism and surrealistic flamboyance the story of another loser, Dionisio, an ex-village idiot whose entire life changes the day he nurses to health an injured gamecock. His ailing and abusive mother then dies, and Dionisio starts roaming the countryside, challenging other birds with his prize fighter. A wealthy landlord tries to buy him off, then has his beloved bird killed in retaliation, but ends up hiring him as an animal handler, bodyguard, and fellow gambler. Having learned all his master's tricks, Dionisio seduces his beautiful mistress, La Copanera, and wins all his possessions playing cards. As the years pass, he becomes a ruthless landlord, insensitive husband, and distant father to a nymphomaniac daughter. Every night, Dionisio gambles with the local farmers, forcing La Copanera, now a hopeless alcoholic, to stand behind him, since she is his "lucky talisman." And every night he wins, increasing his huge fortune and his neighbor's hatred. Until one night when, as in a Garcia Marquez novel, the wheel of fortune turns again, this time to crush him. The bird and the woman--both unlikely metaphors of Fortune--are used by Ripstein as signifiers of the hero's obsession with his own destruction: his unrelenting passion for gambling does not have the playful aspect of Barbet Schroeder's Tricheurs, for example. Silent, somber, even when he wins, Dionisio tries to settle a hidden debt--maybe because he hasn't been able to bury his mother in the right coffin, or because he has robbed his benefactor--knowing all too well that the moment of truth will come when it is time for him to finally pay. (BR) (Biograph, 10:00)

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