While I normally write about books or concerts after the fact, this week I want to get the word out in advance for the 16th Annual European Union Film Festival, screening at the Gene Siskel Film Center for the month of March. The lineup of 61 new films from 24 member nations of the European Union includes entries from new talents as well as renowned European actors and directors. It’s a cineast’s dream line-up, the film event I anticipate most each year to help dispel Chicago’s long, grey winter gloom.
So, don’t make the mistake of waiting for the reviews or you may find yourself shut out on the day of the screening. That has happened to me but not this year. I’ve already begun buying tickets.
The festival has built a large following over the years largely due to the tireless efforts of Barbara Scharres, Siskel’s esteemed director of programming and former executive director who has been at the center for 37 years. What Siskel has become is due in great part to her guiding hand.
Scharre’s contributions to film as a scholar, writer and lecturer are widely acknowledged. In 2006, the French government named her a Chevalier de l”Ordre des Arts et des Lettres for advancing French culture through cinema. The Tribune has named her a Chicagoan of the Year three times.
The impetus for the festival came from foreign consulates in town who thought such a festival would promote the concept of the European Union while Scharres liked the goal of promoting a “higher profile” for foreign films in Chicago. The EU at the time (1998) consisted of only a dozen members; membership has since climbed to 27 nations.
Scharres, in a phone interview, was reluctant to play favorites, preferring to speak favorably about all the films to be shown. She was particularly excited by the greater representation of women directors this year. Roughly a dozen, or one-fifth of the entries, are by women. After my persistent coaxing to shed her rose-colored glasses and don a critic’s hat, Scharres named six favorite festival films to which I have added four others to round out a “Don’t Miss” list.
Ten Must-See Films: She began by lavishing praise on a Polish film, “Imagine”–“An amazing, amazing film” that features blind actors. Her pick of a “wonderful documentary” is “Olma & Bela”, by a female German director that is set in the kitchen of the filmmaker’s Jewish grandmother. Scharres calls it a must for foodies! One of Bulgaria’s two entries is “Faith, Love & Whiskey”. This movie, made by a University of Chicago grad, is about an upwardly mobile female who ditches her New York fiance and flies home for a visit and an old flame. Her French pick is “Becoming Traviata” featuring diva Natalie Dessay, a behind-the-scenes look at preparations for a 2011 production of Verdi’s opera. And, for serious drama fans, she chose two films from Italy that deal with high-profile political issues. “Piazza Fontana” investigates a 1969 bank bombing in Milan in which the police question if the CIA and Italian military were involved. Director Mario Bellocchio’s “Dormant Beauty” revisits a controversial 2009 euthanasia case that gripped Italy and stars the always captivating Isabelle Huppert.
My own choices to round out the list are “The Door” by Hungarian director of “Mephisto” fame, Istvan Szabo, and starring the great Helen Mirren. Enough said. “Unfinished Song” stars two fine actors, Terence
Stamp and Vanessa Redgrave who play a husband caring for his gravely ill wife. Has unmistakeable connections with the recent Oscar-winning “Amour”. Finally, one must take a chance on two films by cinematic masters–Ken Loach and Alain Resnais. I have not had the benefit of screening these choices but think they should be among the festival’s best.
Both masters are offering lighter, comic fare, a real change of pace from their more serious screenplays. Loach’s film, “The Angels Share”, closes the festival on March 28. It centers on a young Glasgow delinquent who discovers he has a rare nose for identifying whiskies. And Resnais’ “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet” has an intriguing story line and the added bonus of seeing Michel Piccoli. Resnais has said this will be his last film.
To make your own selections for viewing, go to www.siskelfilmcenter.org/eufilmfest2013. You can purchase advance tickets for what will be many sold-out films. You should consider becoming a member of the Film Center for $50 or purchasing a dual membership for $80 by clicking on the Membership link. That will allow you to buy festival tickets for $6 instead of the $11 admission for non-members.
A number of these films will receive later U.S. distribution but the majority will not. Part of the festival’s fun is to see them first at Siskel and judging them before the critics check in. Don’t miss this once-a-year pleasure of seeing world filmmakers’ latest contributions to film culture as well as catching exciting new talent. Happy hunting and see you at the movies!
Showtimes: “Imagine”, March 24 and 27; “Olma & Bela”, March 10 and 12; “Faith, Love & Whiskey”, March 2 and 4; “Becoming Traviata”, March 23 and 27; “Piazza Fontana” March 10 and 14; “Dormant Beauty”, March 22 and 24; “The Door”, March 22 and 25; “Unfinished Song”, March 3 and 4; “The Angels Share”, March 23 and 28 and “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet”, March 17 and 21.