CIFF 2021: Cinematic Cerebrations
By Sean Boelman
The Chicago International Film Festival has a very strong lineup this year, featuring plenty of exciting screenings of some of the highest-profile films that played on the festival circuit, and also some premieres of international and local flicks. There are so many options that there is plenty to choose from and something to appeal to everyone.
We at disappointment media have gotten the opportunity to screen many of the films in the lineup via both in-person and virtual coverage. As we watch additional films, we will continue to update this article with more capsule reviews. Check out our thoughts below!
The Hand of God
The Hand of God is a semi-autobiographical film from acclaimed filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino, and it is likely his most inconsistent work yet. The first half is a funny yet standard teen comedy, and the second half is a pretty average coming-of-age genre. As always, Sorrentino manages to infuse many moments in the film with a poignant emotional punch, but there are more points here that fall flat than usual. By no means is it a bad film, but it’s not as memorable of an entry into the genre as this filmmaker should have delivered.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria has gotten a lot of attention recently, both positive and negative, for the fact that it will be released in the U.S. as a perpetual theatrical-only roadshow. It’s understandable why NEON opted for this strategy, as it is unlikely to find much success with its methodically slow pace and philosophical musings. However, it’s a gorgeous, poetic, and entrancing film with one of the best sound designs of the year, making it an altogether great sensory experience.
Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi is known for making melodramas out of simple situations and creating something absolutely devastating in the process. His newest film, A Hero, lives up to the quality of his past work and is brilliantly subtle. What makes this film stand out among his filmography is how unexpectedly funny it is, something which only serves to heighten the emotion of the tense final act. It’s a fine entry into Farhadi’s already accomplished career.
There have been plenty of movies about the historical oppression of the LGBTQ community, and while Sebastian Meise may not add anything new to the genre with Great Freedom, it’s very harrowing nevertheless. Franz Rogowski’s performance in the lead role is what ends up setting this apart, giving it an honest and emotional quality. There is a lot to admire here, but the best part is how it captures its power in a restrained and poetic way.
My Brothers Dream Awake
Inspired by a real-life tragedy, the Chilean film My Brothers Dream Awake starts out extremely well, with an opening thirty minutes that are absolutely captivating before it settles into a much more conventional rhythm. Following a group of boys who bond in a juvenile prison, the film seems like it is going to be a searing social commentary, but is really just a coming-of-age tale with a bit of a kick. It’s a story that should have undeniable power, yet viewers will leave feeling rather underwhelmed. U.S. Premiere.
Oscar Micheaux - The Superhero of Black Filmmaking
It’s not uncommon at film festivals to see films that are love letters to the silver screen, and Oscar Micheaux - The Superhero of Black Filmmaking fits that bill. Although director Francesco Zippel is a bit dryly academic in his approach to telling the story of one of the early pioneers of Black filmmaking, this story is undeniably important for any cinephile to see. It’s the type of story that is unfortunately far too often left out of film history classes, which makes it a welcome watch. North American Premiere.
After her acclaimed documentary The Babushkas of Chernobyl, filmmaker Holly Morris brings us Exposure, another ode to the sense of community among a group of extraordinary women. Following an international team of women who set out to reach the North Pole, this film doesn’t inspire the same level of awe that a lot of exploration documentaries do, but there is still plenty of value in this story. There’s definitely a lot to be said about how these women fight back against the patriarchy, and it is sure to be inspiring to many. World Premiere.
Another submission for the Best International Film Oscar, this time from Cambodia, White Building is an effortlessly poignant portrait of a community falling apart, both literally and metaphorically. Although it ultimately hits a lot of familiar beats, especially in regards to the coming-of-age arc, there is a lot here that resonates, particularly in its exploration of the socioeconomic factors that make up the film’s themes. It may not be the most original in its approach, but its authenticity is welcome. North American Premiere.
Paris, 13th District
The combination of co-writer/director Jacques Audiard, writer Céline Sciamma, and actress Noémie Merlant sounds like a guaranteed winner, so it will come as a shock to cinephiles that Paris, 13th District is a total dud. Following three individuals in a love triangle (and a fourth, whose connection to one of them provides for a subplot that is the most interesting part of the story), this is an excruciatingly pretentious film. Although Merlant and co-lead Lucie Zhang are both great, their characters are shallow and unlikable, making this little more than a pretty film about pretty people.
The House of Snails
Although a mix of The Shining and werewolves may not sound like the greatest idea on paper, The House of Snails is a surprisingly chilling and entertaining Spanish-language horror flick. The commentary on how art tends to appropriate the traditions of local communities isn’t as well-developed as one would like, but those looking for a twisty (if somewhat predictable) mystery with a supernatural edge will be pleased here thanks to how wonderfully director Macarena Astorga builds her atmosphere.
Costa Brava, Lebanon
Costa Brava, Lebanon is the rare movie with goals that are less ambitious than what it would be able to pull off. A simple domestic drama with huge political implications in the background, there’s a lot bubbling beneath the surface here, but filmmaker Mounia Akl is more concerned with the small-scale story of these characters. The result is a film that feels rather quaint and does not live up to its potential. The tone is strong, and the performances are great, but it’s underwhelming from a narrative standpoint. U.S. Premiere.
Hot off his widely-acclaimed documentary Boys State, filmmaker Jesse Moss has chosen to make a much more traditional political documentary as his follow-up. However, even though Mayor Pete might follow the conventions of the genre pretty closely, Moss’s energetic style and the inspiring story of Pete Buttigieg make this a compelling watch. In exploring Buttigieg’s campaign for the Presidency, Moss is also able to explore what made his subject such an extraordinary figure in politics, and while it may not reach essential viewing status, it has the intended effect. World Premiere.
As the title would imply, Mia Hansen-Løve’s Bergman Island is a love letter to the work of acclaimed filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. Following a screenwriter whose work begins to mirror reality after she embarks on a pilgrimage in the footsteps of the Swedish filmmaker, this is an entirely pleasant watch, even if there isn’t much that will leave the viewers feeling wowed. It’s a quiet, talky film with some great dialogue and stellar performances from Vicky Krieps, Tim Roth, Mia Wasikowska, and Anders Danielsen Lie, but don’t expect it to have much of a lasting effect.
Filmmaker Andrea Arnold is known for her gorgeously minimalistic dramas, and while her newest film is a documentary, many of the trademarks of her style are visible here. Cow is a stirring dissection of the dairy industry, following one dairy cow on a farm in Britain. It’s a highly observational film, with no narration and very little in the way of dialogue, but it’s powerful nevertheless. The final image is about as angering and stirring as they come and will leave viewers shaken.
Hit the Road
The directorial debut of Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi’s son, Panah Panahi, Hit the Road is a road movie that seems very simple, but has much more boiling beneath the surface. It’s the story of a family taking one last trip together, and while that is a story that has been done before many times, the political undercurrents make it feel refreshing and unique. Strong dialogue, genuinely great performances, and an inspired visual style make this a promising debut for Panahi.
The Odd-Job Men
Neus Ballús’s The Odd-Job Men is one of those films where you know what it’s going for, but it doesn’t translate as well as the filmmaker seemed to hope. There are some weighty topics addressed in the film, like racism and immigration, but they are approached with a generally light and airy tone. The result is a film that is entertaining and handles its themes well without feeling too heavy-handed. It may not be the most impactful watch, but it’s worth watching regardless. U.S. Premiere.
Semih Kaplanoglu’s Commitment Hasan is a long and restrained film, but there’s something quietly moving about its story. Following a man who finds himself in the midst of a spiritual crisis at the same time his farmland is being threatened by the installation of a new electricity pole, this feels like a more self-reflective version of Erin Brockovich. Although the runtime and pacing can sometimes work against the film, the atmosphere which it builds is affecting. North American Premiere.
Punch 9 for Harold Washington
So many people fail to recognize the importance of local politics, but Joe Winston’s documentary Punch 9 for Harold Washington sets out to remedy that. The first African-American mayor of Chicago, Harold Washington has more of a wide-reaching impact than anyone would expect. The presentation of the film is rather standard, but the story is so exceptional that it will be entertaining and fascinating for most viewers, regardless of whether or not they have a Chicago connection. World Premiere.
The pairing of sports documentarian Rex Miller and prolific civil rights documentarian Sam Pollard proves to be a perfect fit for Citizen Ashe, a film about tennis player and activist Arthur Ashe. Although the film does stick to a lot of the conventions from each of the documentary genres, blending them together was a great idea and results in a compelling watch. There are some portions of the film that could have used some additional depth, but it’s generally very efficient in its storytelling.
The Gravedigger's Wife
The first-ever Somalian submission for the Academy Award for Best International Feature, The Gravedigger’s Wife is a pretty straightforward film, but it’s one that thrives in its simplicity. It’s a powerful film about perseverance in a time of hardship and misfortune. Although there isn’t a whole lot to the plot, the character work here is absolutely exceptional and features some quietly emotional and resonant moments. It’s not a film that initially seems memorable, but the nuance in its approach will make it stick with viewers. U.S. Premiere.
The 2021 Chicago International Film Festival runs October 13-23 in-person and virtually.
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