Bonjour, my fellow CHIRPers! As we close out the month of October by dressing in costume and raising the dead, we also bid adieu to another year of foreign film viewing at the 53rd annual Chicago International Film Festival! This is my second year reviewing the fest for CHIRP, and this year did not disappoint! From big screen debuts to reflective re-releases, this year's crop of celluloid offered a little something for everyone.
There were special presentations of upcoming mainstream films such as Guillermo Del Toro's fanciful The Shape of Water and Reginald Hudlin's biopic Marshall. Audiences also got a peek at The Square (this year's winner of the Palm d'Or at Cannes) and Call Me By Your Name, both of which are considered early Oscar contenders. There were special tributes to acclaimed performers Vanessa Redgrave, Patrick Stewart, and Alfre Woodard thrown in as well. Finally, there was the presentation of awards, and this year's Golden Hugo award went to the Argentinian film A Sort of Family. All high-profile events were eagerly anticipated, and all the above events I was--naturally--unable to get into (damn you, expensive passes!).
Alas, my enjoyment of the festival stirs not from the glitz and glamour of celebrity sightings and world premieres (though I did stumble into the entourage of Saturday Night Live alumnus Jon Lovitz, but does that even count?), but from the exciting experience of seeing the world through the eyes of a foreign filmmaker.
As an American film goer, my cinematic taste buds have become saturated with franchises seeking pop cultural domination or uninspired remakes/sequels/reboots of movies I've seen before. The finite formulas of film are often predictable and stale, as the audience is no longer seen as observers of taste, but as viewers of consumerism (buy the ticket, get the popcorn, then go out and get the Happy Meal and t-shirt!). So every October, I eagerly anticipate the CIFF's next batch of motion picture wonders. To quote the festival's tagline: Life Is a Movie; and to me, seeing these movies show me a life not yet lived.
The first film I experienced this year won the Grand Prix award (basically first runner-up) at this year's Cannes Film Festival: BPM (or Beats Per Minute). Set in the early 1990s, BPM is about the French chapter of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power), an AIDS organization originally formed in New York City at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the late 1980s. The film opens with some of the members hiding backstage, just seconds before they burst from behind the curtains and interrupt a speech to protest the lack of research and solutions provided about the disease. The establishing POV shot sets the viewer within the closed, claustrophobic surroundings, making it clear that within the next 150 mins, we'll be pulled into and be affected by the hostile environment of these activists.
ACT UP was a direct-action advocacy group that protested the socio-political failures of the government who refused to publicly address the AIDS epidemic. Their demonstrations were loud, rude, and visceral (fake blood was often spilled to get their point across). Most of the action takes place within a campus classroom where activists of different ages, races, genders, and orientations are often at odds with one another as to how the organization should effectively demonstrate their purpose: diplomatically or radically. That opening scene is immediately called into question, with opposing testimonials depicting a particular improvised moment (dealing with fake blood, of course) as either damaging to their cause or raising awareness with shock value tactics. It's one of many moments that will spark continued debates among the film's characters as they continue to fight the powers that be regarding a cause that is killing them and those around them.
That personal motivation strengthens and hinders the film. While the film works incredibly well at depicting an immediate sense of urgency at seeking results for a seemingly unstoppable disease, the film's pacing drags as soon as it focuses on a budding love story between new recruit Nathan and rebellious radical Sean. Nathan has joined ACT UP as a means to help his community, but Sean's motivation stems from his own battle with AIDS. The smooth chemistry between the two characters is sensitively portrayed, yet ultimately fated, as Sean's health begins to decline towards the second half of the film's run time. The scenes depicting heated arguments and inner turmoil among the ranks of the organization are far more pulsating than the romance. Yet the relationship that occurs between Nathan and Sean gives the film the beating heart it needs to make the predictable ending all the more emotional. ACT UP brought raw intensity and pain into their protests, and BPM succeeds at depicting that emotion. During a time of renewed activism, BPM is a relevant film depicting an era of protest that is often overlooked, and serves as a learning tool for how the message--no matter the motivation--can boost or hurt the reputation.
Reputation and interpretation play a big part in the second film I viewed, the Brazilian drama Liquid Truth. Set at a community swimming pool, the film explores the power and consequence of words and accusations towards Rubens, a charming swimming instructor whose relationship with his students is called into question. One particular student accuses him of inappropriate affection, and within hours his stature is jeopardized thanks to the boy's mother.
The film's ambivalent scenes portray Rubens as both blameworthy and blameless. He seems at once likable yet sleazy, showing a paternal and motivating style of teaching with the children he instructs, while also encouraging "locker room banter" with his adult male coworker. Like his female boss, we are at odds with how to respond to the predatory accusations against Rubens. Is Rubens' guilty or a victim of speculated hysteria?
There's an effective (albeit too on-the-nose) scene where the mother of the child posts in a Facebook group to all of the parents whose children are all in the same swimming class. Within seconds, the parents quickly pass judgement and add more to the rumor mill, spiraling into an all-too-familiar witch hunt. It takes a toll on Rubens, who immediately begins deleting questionable photos on his Facebook page, but it also worries Rubens' supervisor, who initially scoffs at the accusation but learns to regret it as the situation quickly snowballs out of her control.
As questions continue to pop up, the film concludes with an ambiguous ending, much to the credit of director Carolina Jabor. Jabor and actor Daniel de Oliveira (who stunningly resembles a young Burt Lancaster) attended this presentation and answered a few questions from the audience. As Jabor explained, her intent was to make the entire film debatable from beginning to end. She mentioned how in Portugal, the title was translated as "In Your Eyes," because the finale is ultimately left to everything you see on screen. We are never certain as to the extent of Rubens' relationship with his students, or what motivates the young swimmer to accuse Rubens of inappropriate behavior or what he tells his mother. When you're provided few details about a particular scenario, the proof remains muddled, leaving the viewer with their own interpretation as to what really happened.
And there you have it: two completely different films bound by the theme of interpretation. It's always a joy to attend two screenings of two completely different films and yet find a common thread in its celluloid makeup. It's why I enjoy the CIFF and film in general: visual storytelling, no matter the country or the culture, has the power to connect the world. Life is indeed a movie, and the Chicago International Film Festival has given life to these movies that might otherwise go unnoticed in the States. Until next year, CHIRPers...Au revoir...!