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European Union Film Festival

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The fourth annual European Union Film Festival continues Friday through Sunday, February 23 through 25, at the Gene Siskel Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson. Admission is $7, $3 for Film Center members. For further information call 312-443-3737. Films marked with a 4 are highly recommended.

FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 23

Before the Storm

This Swedish family drama (2000) expertly intercuts and then connects two separate stories: an Arab immigrant (Per Graffman), raising two daughters with his Swedish wife in a provincial town, is blackmailed by his former guerrilla comrades to assassinate a local industrialist, while a meek teenager (Emil Odepark) hounded by the school bully decides to retaliate using his mother's pistol. Caught between family and dishonor, lies and revelations, both characters are driven to the brink of violence, and director Reza Parsa, an Iranian by birth, neatly parallels their predicaments with the web of economic and political complicity that binds the complacent West to the turmoil in the Middle East. 102 min. (TS) (6:00)

The Restless

A tremendous commercial success in Finland, this 2000 debut feature by Aku Louhimies explores the desperate narcissism of the privileged young, who question love and cling to their freedom in the face of marriage and parenthood. A callow ambulance doctor who goes in for one-night stands (Mikko Nousiainen) picks up a graduate student who tries to domesticate him, but he hits on her best friends instead, threatening their relationships. Louhimies cowrote the script with Aleksi Bardy, the producer of a popular reality-TV series, and though its characters' lusty sex scenes and drunken bouts are convincing, it lacks both intellectual gravity and psychological insight. There's more drama in Mac Ahlberg's cinematography, which starkly contrasts the various spaces of the doctor's compartmentalized life and burnishes the last glow of summer in the film's lakeside setting. 110 min. (TS) (8:00)

SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 24

The Blue Arrow

This dreary 1996 animated feature, a coproduction of Luxembourg, France, and Italy, is based on the Italian myth of la Befana, a good witch who delivers toys to children on the evening of January 5. Her evil assistant Scarafoni has been poisoning her to keep her in bed so that he can sell her toys to rich families; the toys decide to escape and bequeath themselves to an orphan boy who's wished for a "blue arrow" train. The script, by Umberto Marino and director Enzo d'Alo, is a succession of cliches, and the animation is so sterile and unimaginative that it would insult the visual intelligence of a four-year-old. 90 min. (FC) (4:00)

Born in Absurdistan

The newborn son of an affluent Viennese couple is accidentally switched with the son of Turkish immigrants in this enjoyable 1999 comedy of errors from Austria. The mistake is discovered only after the Turks have been unfairly deported--thanks to the Viennese father's indifference as an immigration lawyer for the government--and when the Austrians arrive in a rural Turkish village in their white Mercedes hoping to rectify the situation, they find themselves in over their heads. Director Houchang Allahyari gently skewers Europe's hypocritical immigration laws and mistreatment of nonwhite aliens, and while the tone is more whimsical than satiric, all four leads give winning performances. 98 min. (Reece Pendleton) (6:00)

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, so she sets off for Venice, where she encounters a series of eccentric characters. Silvio Soldini, who directed this award-winning Italian comedy (2000), 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. 115 min. (FC) (8:15)

SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 25

Rent-a-Friend

A painter (Marc van Uchelen), dumped by his girlfriend because he lacks ambition, hits on the idea of renting himself out as a pal and counselor to the lonely, and his business unexpectedly takes off. This charming, effervescent, and paper-thin romantic comedy from the Netherlands (2000) is clearly influenced by Woody Allen; director Eddy Terstall pokes gentle fun at soap opera addicts (the girlfriend is a scriptwriter who uses her life with the protagonist as source material) and the parade of emotionally needy types who make the novel business a success. But his satire is sometimes too cute to be effective, and the hero's relationships and fantasies are so treacly and predictable that they make Allen's films seem weighty by comparison. 90 min. (TS) (1:00)

When Brendan Met Trudy

Brendan, a bookish schoolteacher and cinephile, gets entangled with vivacious Trudy, who claims to be a preschool teacher but is actually a professional burglar. This 1999 comedy from Ireland, based on novelist Roddy Doyle's first original screenplay, is often amusing--asking her out, Brendan praises a film's "courageous editing," while Trudy only wants to know if it's in color. But director Kieron J. Walsh never quite figures out what to do with the numerous film references (he quotes dialogue, they reenact scenes), and the resulting uncertainty in tone, which sometimes treats the characters as parodistic products of mass culture, undercuts his later attempts to suggest that their love is authentic. With Peter McDonald and Flora Montgomery. 95 min. (FC) (3:00)

The Widow of Saint Pierre

Based on a true story, this 19th-century period romance (2000) by Patrice Leconte concerns the only man ever condemned to death on Saint Pierre, a French island near Newfoundland. Convicted of a drunken and senseless murder, he attracts the interest of the garrison captain's wife (Juliette Binoche), who engages him to help her construct a greenhouse, and after his good deeds endear him to the islanders, the captain and his wife take up his cause. There are some irritating cutaways to the boat carrying a guillotine to Saint Pierre for the execution, but Bosnian-born director Emir Kusturica delivers a superb performance as the prisoner, a brutish cipher who gradually reveals his humanity, and the delicate lighting often produces silhouetted faces that evoke the ultimate incomprehensibility of human emotion. 112 min. (FC) (5:00)

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