13th Annual EU Film Festival Highlights, Week Four: ‘The Secret of Kells,’ ‘Hadewijch’

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CHICAGO – We have now reached the fourth and final week of the 13th Annual European Union Film Festival at the Siskel Film Center, and what a fantastic festival it has been. From international sensations to critically acclaimed gems rarely available in the US, the EU annual line-up is consistently one of the finest offered by any festival in the Windy City.

The first three weeks were loaded with highlights that just seemed to get better as the days progressed. Some of the selections, such as Austria’s diabolical delight “The Bone Man” and the Netherlands’ beguiling documentary “Rembrandt’s J’Accuse,” were more entertaining than the majority of mainstream Hollywood releases. Both France and Italy had several exceptional entries this year, including Amos Gitai’s spellbinding “Disengagement” and Luca Guadagnino’s ravishing “I Am Love.” Read more here, here and here.

The final week is somewhat of a letdown in comparison, but even its imperfect offerings are worthy subjects of discussion and debate. Most of the films highlighted this week vary in their degrees of disappointment, while only one of them proved to be an out-and-out triumph. It is the Danish drama “Brotherhood,” which deservedly garnered the top prize at last year’s Rome Film festival.

Brotherhood
Brotherhood
Photo credit: Siskel Film Center

Who knew that a gay love story set in a neo-Nazi cult could be anything other than a sensationalistic tear-jerker populated by heightened stereotypes? Instead, director Nicolo Donato approaches the subject matter with sensitivity and honestly, laced with brutally frank insight. When staff sergeant Lars (Thure Lindhart) is suspected of making passes at men, his contract lapses. Now out of work, Lars finds himself morbidly drawn into a neo-Nazi cult that provides an outlet for his anger, as well as an opportunity to meet other men. While either streaking on the beach or roughhousing in a mosh pit, there’s no doubt that these neo-Nazis treasure male intimacy, even as they voice their hatred of homosexuals.

After getting kicked out of his house, Lars moves in with fellow comrade Jimmy (David Dencik), and the two men surprise themselves by secretly becoming romantically involved. Of course, they couldn’t have picked a more dangerous closet to fall in love within, and soon the inevitable hand of intolerance comes knocking. Yet the film doesn’t end in quite the way one would expect, and the human relationships are guaranteed to absorb any moviegoer, regardless of their sexual orientation. Lindhart and Dencik are immensely moving in their complex, richly textured roles, as the film builds its shatteringly poignant power. “Brotherhood” screens on Saturday, March 27th at 9:30pm and Wednesday, March 31st at 8:15pm.

Gordos
Gordos
Photo credit: Siskel Film Center

Another film that views potentially repellant subject matter through an endearingly human lens is the Spanish comedy “Gordos.” It purports itself to be an uncompromisingly raw portrait of ordinary Spaniards’ obsession with body image. Considering how morbid obesity has lately become a uniquely American struggle, this film’s premise could not be more timely for audiences in the US. That’s why it’s all the more disappointing when director Daniel Sánchez Arévalo allows his cheeky satire to morph into bombastic melodrama in its second act, with enough plot twists and manipulative revelations to fill an entire soap opera season.

The sprawling ensemble of characters is headed by nutrition expert Enrique (Antonio de la Torre), whose newly portly physique is a source of humiliation. Weight counselor Abel (Robert Enriquez) offers helpful advice to his patients in group therapy sessions, yet can’t stand the sight of his pregnant wife Paula (Veronica Sanchez). Sex plays a crucial role in all the story threads, particularly the one involving horny Sofia (Leticia Herrero), who’s grown impatient with her devoutly abstinent fiancé (Raul Arevalo), who keeps a glow-in-the-dark crucifix above their bed. There’s also the chubby girl (Marta Martin) who receives body-shaping electrodes for her birthday, and the woman (Maria Morales) who gains weight in the hopes that she’ll get dumped, and…it’s clear around the thirty-minute-mark that the screenwriters have bitten off more than they could chew.

Hadejwich
Hadejwich
Photo credit: Siskel Film Center

Some may find “Gordos” a refreshing diversion, while others will view it as an ungainly mixture of “Love Actually” and “The Biggest Loser.” It plays Friday, March 26th at 8:15pm and Sunday, March 28th at 4:45pm.

Yet the most disquietingly flawed film this week is the one that has the most going for it. About an hour in to Bruno Dumont’s “Hadewijch,” I had the impassioned hunch that the film may very well be the best I’ve seen at the EU festival this year. It marks a stunning change of pace for French filmmaker Dumont (“Humanité,” “Twentynine Palms”), who has dealt with spiritually troubled protagonists before, but never in such an introspective and touchingly tender way, devoid of his contentious violence. He elicits a mesmerizing performance from newcomer Julie Sokolowski, who plays Celiné, a devoutly Catholic novice expelled from her convent after the nuns deem her methods for “abstinence” as far too extreme. The mother superior thinks that Celiné’s “true self will be revealed” to her when she re-enters the world. And find herself she does.

There are some profoundly provocative scenes between Celiné and Islamic radical Nassir (Karl Sarafidis), who are intrinsically connected by their spiritual hunger and zealous passion. It’s worth noting that Dumont was once a philosophy professor, and his characters often emerge more as symbols than flesh-and-blood beings. The aggressively abstract final act of this picture left me utterly perplexed and wholly unsatisfied, yet I can’t stop thinking about it (a sure sign that the film has left me with more to discover). When Celiné gazes up at her invisible savior and cries, “Why do you elude me?”, I couldn’t help sharing her sentiment. Try answering the question, “How do you solve a problem like ‘Hadewijch’?”, and see it for yourself on Saturday, March 27th at 7:15pm or Wednesday, March 31st at 6pm.

The Secret of Kells
The Secret of Kells
Photo credit: Siskel Film Center

Perhaps the most anticipated film this week is the closing night selection, Ireland’s Oscar-nominated animated feature, “The Secret of Kells.” Viewers are advised to sit as close to the screen as possible, in order to completely immerse themselves in the swirling, spectacularly detailed Celtic imagery. Young Brendan (voiced by Evan McGuire) ventures outside of his medieval outpost, and into an enchanted forest where he retrieves materials that will help create a book with the power to “bring light into the darkness.” He befriends a fairy that resembles the Cheshire Cat crossed with a Powerpuff girl, while his uncle, Abbot Cellach (Brendan Gleeson), attempts to protect his town from the approaching Vikings.

The big problem with “Kells” is its breakneck pacing. Just when you want to drink in the visuals, the film zips past them, while abandoning any sense of dramatic rhythm. The basic story is a classic “pen is mightier than the sword” parable, but the plot is needlessly complicated, especially for a film clocking in at a mere 75 minutes. It’s the kind of film that you’ll want to immediately see again…in slow motion. Moviegoers attending the screening on Thursday, April 1st at 7pm are invited to a post-film reception hosted by Whole Foods Market.

Among this week’s other highlights is the latest work from Jacques Rivette, “Around a Small Mountain.” Here is the rest of the line-up for week four, in order of appearance…

“The Misfortunates,” Belgium/Netherlands, Felix Van Groeningen
Friday, March 26, 6:00 pm
Saturday, March 27, 9:30 pm

Synopsis: “Belgium’s official Academy Awards submission follows in the recent Belgian tradition of the darkest of black comedies. Based on the semi autobiographical novel by Dimitri Verhulst, the story follows the rocky coming-of-age of young Guenther, growing up in the hairy bosom of a mostly-male clan of alcoholic louts with a long, proud history of unemployment. Role models are hard to come by when family milestones include acing a beer-drinking competition or winning the town’s nude bicycle race. In Dutch with English subtitles. Special advance screening courtesy of Neoclassics Films, Ltd. Presented with the support of Flanders House, New York. 35mm widescreen.”

OSS 117: Lost In Rio
OSS 117: Lost In Rio
Photo credit: Siskel Film Center

OSS 117: Lost In Rio,” France, Michel Hazanavicius
Friday, March 26, 6:00 pm
Saturday, March 27, 3:00 pm

Synopsis: “Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath, the French superspy of the acclaimed spoof OSS 117: CAIRO, NEST OF SPIES, is back, more complacent and clueless than ever. This time, he is sent to Rio to track down a Nazi war criminal (Wenders veteran Rüdiger Vogler), with a miniskirted Mossad colonel (Monot) at his side to provide fodder for both sexist and anti-Semitic gaffes. Once again, the series’ secret weapon is the brilliant comic performing of star Dujardin, who plays the colonialist fool with an impeccable deadpan and just a tiny soupçon of wink. In French with English subtitles. Special advance screening courtesy of Music Box Films. 35mm widescreen.”

“Slaves In Their Bonds,” Greece, Adonis Lykouresis
Friday, March 26, 8:00 pm
Monday, March 29, 7:45 pm

Synopsis: “This polished historical drama adapted from the novel by Konstantinos Theotokis is the official Greek submission for Academy Awards consideration. It’s the turn of the 20th century on Corfu, and gambling debts and mismanagement have brought the aristocratic Ofiomachos family to the brink of financial ruin. Their only salvation appears to be in a forced marriage between their beautiful daughter and a wealthy, politically connected doctor, passing over the plainer daughter who is eager to sacrifice herself for the family. In Greek with English subtitles. 35mm print courtesy of the Greek Film Center.”

Around a Small Mountain
Around a Small Mountain
Photo credit: Siskel Film Center

“April Showers,” Portugal, Ivo Ferreira
Saturday, March 27, 3:15 pm
Thursday, April 1, 8:15 pm

Synopsis: “Politically explosive family secrets are unearthed when Pedro, a man on the verge of marriage to his pregnant fiancée, comes across suspicious photos and documents while helping his grandmother move. All semblance of normalcy is banished from his life as Pedro becomes obsessed by clues linking his father, who disappeared in the wake of Portugal’s 1974 revolution, with a kidnapping and murder. The trail of discoveries will lead to an unnerving showdown in a Wild West theme park in the Spanish desert. In Portuguese with English subtitles. 35mm print courtesy of Insomnia World Sales.”

“The Sicilian Girl,” Italy/France, Marco Amenta
Saturday, March 27, 5:00 pm
Wednesday, March 31, 8:15 pm

Synopsis: “This powerful anti-Mafia drama is based on the true story of Rita Atria, a 17-year-old Sicilian girl whose anger over the mob slayings of her Mafiosi father and brother drove her to turn state’s evidence. In his first fiction feature, documentarian Amenta provides a authentic picture of courtroom tactics, Mafia culture, and Sicilian village life, but the film is dominated by D’Agostino (RESPIRO), whose compelling performance captures her character’s complex evolution from Mafia princess to revenge-obsessed loner to social crusader. In Italian with English subtitles. Special advance screening courtesy of Music Box Films. 35mm.”

“Whiskey With Vodka,” Germany, Andreas Dresen
Saturday, March 27, 5:15 pm
Wednesday, March 31, 6:00 pm

Synopsis: “Director Dresen (GRILL POINT, SUMMER IN THE CITY) makes a movie about moviemaking in the tradition of BEWARE OF A HOLY WHORE and DAY FOR NIGHT, observing the everyday squabbles and jealousies of a movie shoot with an air of bemused deglamorization. When a veteran star’s heavy drinking becomes too much of a liability, the production company hangs a sword over his head by filming every scene twice—once with the star, once with an understudy. The uncomfortable situation on the set is exacerbated by the fact that the leading lady is the star’s still-flickering old flame—and the director’s current wife. In German with English subtitles. 35mm print courtesy of Goethe Institut.”

Landscape No. 2
Landscape No. 2
Photo credit: Siskel Film Center

“Landscape No. 2,” Slovenia, Vinko Möderndorfer
Saturday, March 27, 7:30 pm
Tuesday, March 30, 6:00 pm

Synopsis: “Slovenia’s official submission for Academy Awards consideration is a thriller that begins with an art heist. Although the target is a significant painting, an inept robber impulsively grabs a sheaf of documents from a safe, setting off a chain of events that will ultimately revolve around a retired general, his aide, and a grave in the deep woods. Everyone has something to hide in this film that peppers political drama with violent action and black humor as the underlying story of collaborators and war crimes eerily unfolds. In Slovenian with English subtitles. Special advance screening courtesy of Vanguard Cinema. 35mm.”

“Around a Small Mountain,” France/Italy, Jacques Rivette
Sunday, March 28, 3:00 pm
Monday, March 29, 6:00 pm

Synopsis: “An uncharacteristically brief work by 81-year-old master Rivette, AROUND A SMALL MOUNTAIN is a graceful reflection on his cherished themes of performance, spontaneity, and the creative process. While traveling through the mountainous Cévennes region, a peripatetic Italian businessman (Castellitto) becomes involved with a declining small-time circus and its mysterious, melancholy owner (Birkin). The story is based loosely on the life of author Raymond Roussel. In French with English subtitles. Special advance screening courtesy of The Cinema Guild. 35mm.”

The World Is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner
The World Is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner
Photo credit: Siskel Film Center

“The Swimsuit Issue,” Sweden, Mans Herngren
Sunday, March 28, 3:00 pm
Monday, March 29, 6:00 pm

Synopsis: “Inspired by such pick-yourself-up Britcoms as THE FULL MONTY and CALENDAR GIRLS, THE SWIMSUIT ISSUE deftly mixes slapstick with insights on such issues as gender rivalry, homophobia, and the unfashionability of middle-aged men. Unemployed, divorced, and estranged from his daughter, Frederik (Inde) is stuck in Loserville when a botched prank gives him the idea to mold his motley buddies into Sweden’s only all-male synchronized-swimming team, with the World Cup finals in Berlin as the seemingly unattainable goal. In Swedish with English subtitles. 35mm widescreen print courtesy of the Swedish Film Institute.”

“Broken Promise,” Slovakia, Jirí Chlumsky
Sunday, March 28, 6:45 pm
Tuesday, March 30, 7:45 pm

Synopsis: “Slovakia¹s official submission for Academy Awards consideration is based on the true story of a Jewish teenager’s seven-year struggle for survival through the Holocaust. Life in a provincial town is idyllic for young Martin and his family until 1938, when the ‘Aryanization’ begins. Only a prodigious talent for soccer saves his life at first, and he quickly learns to live by his wits, finding both friends and enemies in surprising places. Rich in historical detail, BROKEN PROMISE is especially notable for its warm evocation of pre-WWII Jewish family life. In Slovak with English subtitles. 35mm print courtesy of Film Europe.”

“The World Is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner,” Bulgaria/Germany/Slovenia/Hungary, Stephen Komandarev
Sunday, March 28, 7:00 pm
Monday, March 29, 8:00 pm

Synopsis: “Short-listed recently for an Academy Award nomination, this coming of-age saga is marked by strong performances, especially by Miki Manojlovic (Kusturica’s UNDERGROUND) as the feisty grandfather who traverses Europe to reclaim his grandson. The story ricochets between young Sashko’s childhood in a refugee camp and the present, in which the amnesiac expatriate languishes in a German hospital until his vital old lion of a grandfather comes roaring in to change his life with a backgammon board and a bicycle built for two. In Bulgarian, German, Italian, and Slovenian with English subtitles. 35mm print courtesy of Art Fest Ltd.”

HollywoodChicago.com staff writer Matt Fagerholm

By MATT FAGERHOLM
Staff Writer
HollywoodChicago.com
matt@hollywoodchicago.com

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