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The ninth European Union Film Festival continues Friday, March 17, through Thursday, March 30, at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State, 312-846-2800. Tickets are $9, $7 for students, and $5 for Film Center members. Following are films screening through Thursday, March 23; for a full festival schedule visit www.chicagoreader.com.

All Souls

Subtitled "Stories on the Edge of Murder," this 2005 Dutch film compiles 16 sketches that address the brutal November 2004 murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh. (His killer, Mohammed Bouyeri, was provoked by van Gogh's ten-minute short Submission, which ridiculed Islamic sexism.) Many segments are preoccupied with van Gogh's obesity, and some are as crude and insensitive as Submission. Others are insensitive but well-done (the striking experimental piece Goodbye), though I'm not sure whether any qualify as sensitive and well made. The title of each is rendered in black-and-white footage of street graffiti. In English and subtitled Dutch. 96 min. (JR) a Sat 3/18, 5 PM, and Wed 3/22, 6 PM

Bitter Coffee

This quirky, ambling 2004 comedy--the feature debut of writer-director Borkur Gunnarsson--examines the shifting relationships among two young Prague couples and the people they encounter on a rocky vacation in the country. Caught in the romantic confusion are an ironic filmmaker, his increasingly dissatisfied girlfriend, her Icelandic ex-boyfriend (who also happens to be the filmmaker's producer), and the ex's naive, philosophically inclined teenage brother. Nothing new here, but the intelligently understated acting and the drily humorous contrast between the beautiful rural landscape and the characters' petty yet intense squabbles make the film fresh. In Czech with subtitles. (Albert Williams) a Sat 3/18, 7:15 PM, and Tue 3/21, 8 PM

Bye Bye Blackbird

French director Robinson Savary makes his feature debut with this maddeningly disjointed fable set in the early 1900s. An unemployed construction worker (James Thierree, grandson of Charlie Chaplin) joins a traveling circus, falls for a beautiful but icy acrobatic star (Izabella Miko), and tries to woo her by joining her trapeze act. Designed by Wilbert Van Dorp and shot by Christophe Beaucarne, this 2005 feature from Luxembourg is a visual triumph, but the atmospherics fail to conceal the thin story and some fairly pretentious dialogue. Derek Jacobi contributes some top-notch scene chewing as the creepy ringmaster. 100 min. (Reece Pendleton) a Sat 3/18, 3:15 PM, and Mon 3/20, 6 PM

Clean

After a fading rock star dies of a drug overdose in Canada, his strung-out widow (Maggie Cheung) leaves their little boy with his paternal grandfather (Nick Nolte), cleans up during a six-month prison term, then tries to reassemble her life in Paris. Cheung and director Olivier Assayas previously collaborated on Irma Vep (before they married and divorced); this 2004 French feature marks their creative reunion, but it's a disappointment. Weak, self-absorbed, ill-tempered, and devoid of glamour even in her casual bisexuality, the protagonist is a systematic inversion of the hot star Cheung played in the earlier movie, and despite her skilled acting (which was honored at Cannes), she can't make the woman very interesting in her own right--the most compelling performance here is Nolte's. With Jeanne Balibar, Don McKellar, and Beatrice Dalle. In English and subtitled French. 111 min. (JR) a Sat 3/18, 7 PM

Fallen

German filmmaker Fred Keleman (Fate, Nightfall) has worked as a cinematographer for Hungarian master Bela Tarr, and like his mentor he employs long takes, slow camera movements, and depressive settings shot in black and white. This 2005 feature differs from his earlier work in its Latvian locations and tricky mystery plot, about an archivist who thinks he may have witnessed a woman's suicide and becomes obsessed with the apparent victim. Suggesting at various junctures Laura, Vertigo, and Blowup, it deconstructs certain art-house cliches (including its own compulsive gloom) but also embraces certain others, both visual and aural. In Latvian and Russian with subtitles. 90 min. (JR) a Sun 3/19, 5 PM, and Wed 3/22, 6:15 PM

The Forest for the Trees

The video format makes this 2003 German psychological drama all the more unsettling; it's like a cruel reality show run off the rails. A young teacher (Eva Lobau) leaves her small town for a job in Karlsruhe, where she's assigned the most unruly kids in school. Shy, awkward, and extraordinarily naive, she gloms onto a would-be sophisticate who quickly tires of her. Director Maren Ade uses long point-of-view shots and tight close-ups to map the teacher's deterioration as her classroom performance grows increasingly erratic and her new friendship becomes an all-consuming obsession. In German with subtitles. 81 min. (AG) a Sat 3/18, 5:15 PM, and Thu 3/23, 6:15 PM

R Go for Zucker!

A huge hit in its native Germany, Dani Levy's 2004 screwball comedy owes a clear debt to manic charades like Some Like It Hot and The Producers that pushed the limits of political correctness. Henry Hubchen is dynamic as the title character, a secular Jew whose glory days as an East German sportscaster ended with reunification; now a pool shark, he's estranged from his gentile wife and in hock to his banker son. His mother dies, leaving her fortune to him and his remote Orthodox brother on the condition that they reconcile during the mourning period of shivah, so Zucker and his wife scramble to pass themselves off as devout. In German with subtitles. 90 min. (AG) a Sun 3/19, 3 PM

R The Hero

Set in an Angola mired in poverty, corruption, and despair, this 2004 drama by Zeze Gamboa concerns a crippled veteran of the civil war--a "hero" with a medal to prove it--who finds himself homeless and unemployable in peacetime. When his prosthetic leg is stolen by a street gang, he becomes a national symbol, and the publicity brings him into contact with a fatherless boy whose struggle to survive constitutes its own brand of heroism. Contrived coincidences drive a pat happy ending, but this Angolan-French-Portuguese coproduction is still compelling for its human drama and the surreal landscape of shantytowns and skyscrapers, dusty urban wastelands and pulsing red-light nightspots. In French and Portuguese with subtitles. 97 min. (Albert Williams) a Sat 3/18, 9:15 PM, and Mon 3/20, 8:15 PM

Illusive Tracks

A pastiche of Hitchcock, Agatha Christie, and screwball comedy, this 2003 Swedish film is delivered with such gusto that one can forgive its lack of originality. Most of the action takes place aboard a train from Stockholm to Berlin, where a pompous doctor and his nubile mistress are plotting to kill the doctor's wife; among the other characters are an elderly spinster who befriends the wife and a klutzy literary critic who inflicts a number of increasingly debilitating injuries on a returning war hero. Sumptuous black-and-white cinematography enhances this genre exercise, which is engaging despite a rather predictable "surprise" ending. Peter Dalle directed. In Swedish with subtitles. 100 min. (JK) a Thu 3/23, 6 PM

Like Chef, Like God

A scruffy but handsome vagabond (Giorgos Karamichos) unexpectedly finds his vocation when his uncle gets him a dishwashing job in a fine Athens restaurant and the autocratic head chef discovers his culinary gifts. The novice enjoys a meteoric rise to the top rank of his new profession, though his hubris takes over and he becomes maniacally obsessed with creating the perfect dish. Written and directed by Stergios Niziris, this 2004 Greek feature loses steam after taking a serious and predictable turn, but for the most part it's a charming bit of fluff. In Greek with subtitles. 96 min. (Reece Pendleton) a Fri 3/17, 8 PM, and Mon 3/20, 8 PM

R Presence

A documentary to savor for its eloquence and life-affirming humanism, this 2003 portrait of Swedish photographer George Oddner uses metaphor to illuminate the creative process: an eddying stream keys memories of childhood summers spent in Estonia, then the rivulet dissolves to a swirling black-and-white print as an instant in time is affixed to paper in a darkroom bath. Jazz riffs accompany Oddner, once a drummer, as he revisits New York and recalls his apprenticeship with Richard Avedon in the 50s. "All form and composition has to do with rhythm," he explains, using a seminal Avedon shot to illustrate how the relationship between a subject and the surrounding space creates balance, tension, and movement in an image. "Only the moment lives," he says--a fitting motto for an artist who has defined his life by capturing forever the human ephemera around him. Jan Troell (The Emigrants) directed. In Swedish with subtitles. 84 min. (AG) a Wed 3/22, 8 PM

R Ruins

A theater director unearths a play by an obscure Icelandic author and begins rehearsals in Janez Burger's 2004 Slovenian film. Searching for his own style, he's an emotional manipulator onstage and off, and as the lives of the troupe devolve into a loopy Balkan chaos of allegations and betrayals, he's also revealed to be a liar--he wrote the play. Some comic moments skewer literary pretentiousness, but then the play's staged, and the brief section that ends the film is spectacularly stylized, reminding us that art can be salvaged from life's wreckage. In Slovenian with subtitles. 100 min. (FC) a Fri 3/17, 7:45 PM, and Mon 3/20, 6:15 PM

R Sex and the Celts

Jimmy Duggan's DV documentary (2004) offers an engaging overview of the various religious and sociopolitical forces that have helped shape Irish sexual mores. Mindful that talking heads can turn any project into a dull academic exercise, Duggan incorporates archival footage as well as a liberal number of dramatic reenactments. The latter are a mixed bag: depictions of pre-Christian sexual rituals are both erotic and informative, but segments set in the 18th century suggest outtakes from Masterpiece Theatre. This engrossing primer turns dark in the second half as Duggan surveys the repression of the Catholic and Protestant churches, particularly with regard to abuse of women and children. 104 min. (JK) a Sat 3/18, 9 PM, and Thu 3/23, 8:15 PM

The Sun King

Danish screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen is much better attuned to agony (Brothers, Open Hearts) than absurdity (The Green Butchers), but this raucous 2005 comedy proves that even the most mature Scandinavian can find his inner Adam Sandler. A 30-year-old loser (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) wins the heart of a former beauty queen who's now pushing 60 (Birthe Neumann), and despite his clear incompetence she gives him a plum job in her tanning salon empire. The movie's touching May-December romance would never fly in Hollywood, though this apes American crowd-pleasers in every other respect, from the barfing and Viagra gags to the end-credit bloopers. Tomas Villum Jensen directed. In Danish with subtitles. 86 min. (JJ) a Fri 3/17, 6 PM, and Sun 3/19, 5:15 PM

20 Centimeters

Monica Cervera, the comic sourpuss of El Crimen Perfecto, plays a preoperative male transsexual prostitute whose narcoleptic dreams are rendered on-screen as a series of elaborate musical production numbers. With a mug like hers Cervera must have realized this was her big chance to star in a musical, and she gives a dazzling performance. The wide-screen song-and-dance segments are a lot more fun than the sub-Almodovar story connecting them, which also involves crude street whores and a dwarf who wants to play the cello. I didn't believe for a second that Cervera was a biological male, but this 2005 Spanish feature proves she's more than capable of carrying a picture on her own. Ramon Salazar directed. In Spanish with subtitles. 109 min. (JJ) a Thu 3/23, 8 PM

Wah-Wah

Beady-eyed character actor Richard E. Grant makes his writing and directing debut with this 2005 feature, a semiautobiographical account of his childhood in Swaziland. With Gabriel Byrne, Miranda Richardson, and Emily Watson. 97 min. a Sat 3/18, 3 PM, and Tue 3/21, 6 PM

Winter's End

A young man who's come to retrieve his car after an outdoor music concert is snatched by an embittered farmer who shackles him inside his barn without so much as an explanation. Irish writer-director Patrick Kenny ratchets up the suspense in this 2005 first feature, prudently concealing the farmer's motive from both the hero and the viewer. But the terror begins to dissipate once the farmer reveals his demented scheme, and several plot inconsistencies force Kenny to double back for explication, which compromises the narrative momentum. Michael Crowley, in his debut performance, is effectively creepy as the farmer. With Adam Goodwin and Jillian Bradbury. 98 min. (JK) a Sun 3/19, 3:15 PM, and Wed 3/22, 8:15 PM

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