CIFF 2018: Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” and Six More Highlights

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Today marks the end of the 54th Chicago International Film Festival, and I feel as if it’s only begun. My crazier-than-usual schedule combined with a lack of pre-festival press screenings prevented me from putting together a preview piece, though I was still able to chat with Felix Van Groeningen—director of this year’s opening night selection and Founder’s Award winner “Beautiful Boy”—as well as provide coverage of the red carpet premieres for George Tillman Jr.’s “The Hate U Give” and Steve McQueen’s “Widows.” I also was fortunate enough to catch four of this year’s finest selections at previous festivals: I saw Paweł Pawlikowski’s guaranteed Oscar contender “Cold War” at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, and a trio of pictures—Wolfgang Fischer’s “Styx,” Milko Lazarov’s “Ága” and Benedikt Erlingsson’s Icelandic gem “Woman at War”—at the Reykjavík International Film Festival.

It’s a testament to the fine programming at CIFF that even though my time was severely limited, the festival still managed to bring me six bonafide highlights, along with a film that is sure to be placed near the very top of my best of the year list. Without further ado, here are the pictures I saw that are worth seeking out in a theater or on a streaming platform (ideally a theater) near you…

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La Persistente

Camille Lugan served as a programmer at CIFF for years before submitting her sophomore directorial effort to the festival, which screened as part of the After Dark shorts program. Upon its premiere this past May at the Cannes Film Festival, she discussed how the eroticism of her first experience on a motorcycle birthed the idea for this 22-minute marvel. Not since “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” has such palpable love transpired between a man and his bike, and it goes without saying that the film’s central figure—a seemingly alien cyclist (Harold Torres of “Sin Nombre”)—is “a loner…a rebel.” Lugan’s ingenious use of day-for-night photography lends an otherworldly aura to the spectacular snow-covered landscape of the French Pyrenees, while the entrancing sound design warrants comparison with “Under the Skin,” fusing steadily encroaching doom with an almost spiritual transcendence. There’s no question that “La Persistente” is the work of a born filmmaker, and I can’t wait to see what Lugan—who just assisted Jacques Audiard during production of “The Sisters Brothers”—does next.

THE RAFT

The Raft

Any film ace documentary programmer Anthony Kaufman recommends to me, I will gladly watch, and this year, the one he told me I could not miss was Marcus Lindeen’s Silver Hugo-winning study of a social experiment conducted 45 years ago by anthropologist Santiago Genovés. He assembles a diverse group of ten participants that he deems physically attractive, and joins them in sailing on a motor-less raft across the Atlantic Ocean from Spain to Mexico. During the 101-day journey, he aims to study the human capacity for violence—whether or not it is built into our nature—though the stunts he pulls are on the level of a reality TV show. The great irony here is that Genovés can’t deal with his own rules, such as the placement of women in higher positions of power, while the crew’s only fantasies of violence are directed toward him, as his recklessness threatens to endanger their lives. Boarding a replica of their beloved raft, the participants discuss how this experience left them forever changed. Most moving of all are the reflections of Fé Seymour, who notes that living in close confines with strangers quickly dissolved the divisions between them, making their microcosmic group an antithesis to world conflicts fueled by an “us and them” mentality. By the end of their time together, the crew had united to form an incorruptible “us.”

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Can You Ever Forgive Me?

After watching her in a slew of uninspired comic vehicles, audiences may tend to forget that Melissa McCarthy was nominated for an Oscar for her breakout turn in Paul Feig’s “Bridesmaids.” So fresh was her unapologetically profane, surprisingly poignant performance that it brought down the house when I saw it with a sold-out crowd. Now, after directing “Bridesmaids” co-writer/leading lady Kristen Wiig in her brilliant 2015 debut feature, “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” Marielle Heller gives McCarthy the most fully dimensional role of her career to date in this fact-based profile of struggling celebrity biographer-turned-forgery mastermind Lee Israel. Her desperate moneymaking scheme of penning high-priced letters in the voices of Hollywood legends could’ve spawned a sitcom-level, “cat lady con artist” farce, yet the script by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty takes Israel’s plight—and her weariness of human intimacy—seriously. Never devolving into her signature shtick, McCarthy is enthralling to behold here, especially during a courtroom monologue that could easily earn her another well-deserved Oscar nod. Heller is immensely skilled at building to explosive punchlines, yet her prioritization of truth over caricature makes her work uncommonly compelling.

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Miriam Lies

Natalia Cabral and Oriol Estrada’s Spanish-language coming-of-age drama was a film I had originally hoped to catch upon its world premiere in Karlovy Vary, so I was delighted to see it included among this year’s CIFF line-up. Like “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”, this film is also an empathetic portrait of a liar, though instead of an adult indulging in criminal activity, it’s a young girl of mixed race—Miriam (Dulce Rodriguez)—frightened to inform her parents that the boyfriend she met online is black. Though the premise suggests “Guess Who’s Coming to My Quinceañera?”, the filmmakers avoid all crowd-pleasing contrivances, opting instead to recall how so much of adolescence felt like a stifled scream, harboring as much repressed angst as a Douglas Sirk melodrama. Indeed, there are shades here of Sirk’s twice-made “Imitation of Life,” as words left unarticulated grow all the more excruciating as the narrative progresses. The performances by all the child actors are so authentic, you feel as if you are eavesdropping on them. A euphoric opening sequence of Miriam and her best friend, Jennifer (Carolina Rohana), singing blissfully in the car is nicely bookended with a more melancholic reprise at the end, as the children find that long-standing prejudices have continued their sad dance into the future. This isn’t a film of grand gestures but of aching glances amidst oblivious crowds.

IN DEN GÄNGEN

In the Aisles

When I interviewed “Tiger Girl” director Jakob Lass at last year’s CIFF, we spoke at length about Franz Rogowski, the wonderful German actor that he cast in his very first film. Rogowski was a skilled choreographer who had never acted before, and though his job was solely to sit on a park bench between two other actors, his 15 seconds of screen time easily stole the picture. Lass said that it’s important for actors to not fear being “the loser in a given situation,” and Rogowski does it with such grace. In Thomas Stuber’s deliberately paced drama focusing on the mundane routines of shelf-stackers at a supermarket, the actor proves to be a gifted physical comedian, whether he’s ineptly operating a forklift—backing it up into a shelf as the horn blares—or repeatedly failing to grab a desired toy with an arcade claw, causing him to burn through his coins. Images of tropical paradise beckon to the workers just as the singing lamp did to Tom Hanks in “Joe Versus the Volcano,” suggesting that these lonely souls would rather be lost “in the isles” located several continents away. Sandra Hüller, so phenomenal in “Toni Erdmann,” evokes Cate Blanchett here, pursuing Rogowski with about half the aggression Lana Cooper did in Lass’ intoxicating “Love Steaks.”

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Transit

Rogowski was a most joyous presence at CIFF 2018, appearing at screenings of not only “In the Aisles” but another Music Box title slated for a U.S. release next year: Christian Petzold’s haunting, profoundly timely meditation on the purgatorial entrapment endured by modern refugees. No particular time period is specified as France is overtaken by fascist forces, tearing a mother from her children in a sequence unmistakably reminiscent of the atrocious family separations that occurred on the U.S./Mexico border. Petzold’s adaptation of Anna Seghers’ novel is one of the finest scripts in any film premiering this year, best encapsulated by one of its own lines: “a confused letter in immaculate handwriting.” Rogowski plays a man who attempts to outwit Nazis by posing as a dead author. Time and again he encounters the author’s wife (Paula Beer), tirelessly searching for someone who no longer exists (the android David in “A.I.” could relate). Petzold’s obscured line between the past and present feels eerily prescient in light of how fanatic nationalism continues to rise across the world, popularizing forms of intolerance that had once appeared to have no future apart from collecting dust in history books. The need for integration and the importance of “not pushing away everything that is new,” as stressed by Rogowski’s “Tiger Girl” co-star Maria Dragus during our Skype conversation, are principles embedded within the fabric of Petzold’s elegant artistry.

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Roma

No director makes my jaw drop quite like Alfonso Cuarón. His latest movie left me so stunned that I remained pinned to my seat throughout the entirety of the credits, which end with the Buddhist chant, “Shanti Shanti Shanti.” This invocation of peace—in body, speech and mind—was memorably repeated in Cuarón’s spellbinding 2006 thriller, “Children of Men,” which horrifyingly foreshadowed the current refugee crisis. That film contained two extended sequences of continuous movement—one set in a car under siege, the other on war-torn streets—that are among the astonishing feats of cinematography, choreography and effects in the history of cinema. “Roma” culminates with a bravura set piece on par with those others, yet that’s only one aspect of its greatness. Like “Children of Men” (and another of 2018’s best films, Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed”), Cuarón’s deeply personal tour de force assesses the challenge of bringing new life into a chaotic world. It is also a black-and-white love letter to the Mexico of his childhood and the maid who nurtured him, embodied by Cleo (newcomer Yalitza Aparicio, in a towering performance). As she finds her own life paralleling that of the middle-class woman she works for, Cleo begins to feel increasingly conflicted about her own future, as well as that of her unborn baby. Clearly having learned a lot from his regular DP, three-time Oscar-winner Emmanuel Lubezki, Cuarón takes charge of the camerawork this time around, and his eye for composition (albeit less restless) is every bit as extraordinary. A pair of visual motifs involving water and airplanes resurface in endlessly provocative ways, while two prolonged scenes—viewed from static angles—intentionally blur the action in the upper-right-hand corner of the frame, marrying two moments of inevitable heartache. Yes, the film will be released simultaneously in theaters and on Netflix on December 14th, yet the notion of merely streaming this masterpiece on your television is as absurd as staging a multi-million dollar production of “The Nutcracker” on a stage the size of a thimble. If you see only one movie on the big screen this year, make it “Roma.” I frankly cannot wait to see it again.

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