CIFF 2019: “By the Grace of God,” “The Kingmaker” and More Highlights

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Melvil Poupaud in François Ozon’s “By the Grace of God.” Courtesy of Music Box Films.

With Netflix and other streaming platforms offering more reasons than ever to stay home, the Chicago International Film Festival reminds us that no home entertainment enhancements can compete with the communal moviegoing experience. Its 55th installment kicked off last night and runs through Sunday, October 27th, at the AMC River East 21. There are plenty of exciting guests scheduled to attend, including a quartet of amazing production designers offering master classes: Hannah Beachler (“Black Panther,” “Moonlight”), Adam Stockhausen (“The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “12 Years a Slave”), Wynn Thomas (“Do the Right Thing,” “A Beautiful Mind”) and Eugenio Caballero (“Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Roma”). Since there was no clear Oscar frontrunner at Toronto last month, this awards season will be uncommonly interesting, especially with numerous contenders arriving online mere weeks after their limited theatrical run. This makes festivals such as CIFF all the more crucial in championing the pleasures of watching a great movie on a big screen with an engaged crowd.

I plan to see as many films as possible over the next several days, and had the opportunity to screen a few of them in advance. Without further ado, here are five highlights of CIFF 2019 well worth your time…

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Imelda Marcos in Lauren Greenfield’s “The Kingmaker.” Courtesy of CIFF.

The Kingmaker

Imelda Marcos, former First Lady of the Philippines, considers herself a mother for all mankind, and enjoys handing out dollar bills to impoverished citizens on the street, likening it to supplying candy for kids. Yet when she accidentally causes a framed picture to smash on the ground during her interview with documentarian Lauren Greenfield, she makes no acknowledgement of the servant scurrying to clean her mess. It is a credit to Greenfield’s impeccable eye for detail that her camera lingers on the man who normally would have no attention paid to him. Though the movie is destined for airing on Showtime, it demands to be seen in theaters, with its wide angle compositions accentuating how the objects that surround us convey what we fail to articulate. Initially resembling a darkly comic portrait of obscene wealth in line with Greenfield’s 2012 gem, “The Queen of Versailles,” this muckraking opus gradually turns into an enraging portrait of unchecked greed banking on misinformation and instant gratification. Plundering billions of dollars from her own country, Marcos blackmails her adulterous husband into funding such thoughtless purchases as a private zoo on the small island of Calauit, requiring the eviction of 254 families from their homes in favor of African animals (who are shipped over and subsequently abandoned). This masterwork joins Petra Costa’s “The Edge of Democracy” in affirming that 2016 marked the moment when our world became controlled by flagrant bullies the likes of Trump, Bolsonaro and Duterte espousing Marcos’ belief that “perception is real, the truth is not.”

“The Kingmaker” screens at 8:15pm on Friday, October 18th, with Lauren Greenfield in attendance, and at 1:45pm on Saturday, October 19th.

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Noah Jupe in Alma Har’el’s “Honey Boy.” Courtesy of CIFF.

Honey Boy

The smartest decision Shia LaBeouf made in bringing this unflinchingly personal story to the screen was hiring a director to help him tell it. He was wise to select Alma Har’el, a veteran documentarian who finds ingenious ways of capturing the surreality of a childhood spent on film sets. Master cinematographer Natasha Braier (“The Neon Demon”) portrays the artifice with memorably disorienting imagery reminiscent of Carrie Fisher’s brilliant script for her loosely autobiographical “Postcards from the Edge.” Yet whereas that film delved into the complexity of Fisher’s inability to feel her life as a result of her bipolar disorder, LaBeouf’s own screenplay is primarily preoccupied with the abuse he received at the hands of his father. Noah Jupe (“A Quiet Place”) delivers ferocious work as the stand-in for 12-year-old LaBeouf, as does Lucas Hedges in the parallel sequences set a decade later during his stint in rehab (I could’ve used plenty more scenes of his interactions with a doctor, played without a trace of humor by Martin Starr). LaBeouf himself takes on the role of his own father, who is a “Daddy Dearest” train wreck from frame one and never earned my empathy, especially during an abrupt climactic stab at redemption. Many questions remain unanswered, such as what possessed LaBeouf’s mother (supposedly played by an unseen Natasha Lyonne) to leave her son with a potential rapist, yet the performances ring true.

“Honey Boy” screens at 6pm on Tuesday, October 22nd, with director Alma Har’el in attendance.

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Greta Fernández in Belén Funes’ “A Thief’s Daughter.” Courtesy of CIFF.

A Thief’s Daughter

A considerably more nuanced portrayal of frayed familial bonds can be found in this major highlight of the New Director’s Competition. Greta Fernández gives one of the year’s best performances as Sara, a young single mother struggling to obtain custody of her younger brother, Martín (Tomás Martín, achingly melancholy), in order to protect him from the clutches of their lawless father, Manuel (Eduard Fernández), recently released from prison. She also seems determined to raise a better generation of men, as the father of her baby fades in and out of the picture, failing to truly commit. In her debut feature, Catalan director Belén Funes teams with Fernández to create a fully realized protagonist who warrants comparison with the fiercest heroines in the Dardenne Brothers’ canon, particularly Rosetta. So tireless is Sara in her efforts to ensure Martín’s well-being that she never stops to contemplate whether he actually wants to live with her until she is questioned in court, resulting in a shattering moment of epiphany. Her fear of being abandoned echoes Manuel’s early line about how having kids is a surefire way to avoid living alone. I wasn’t ready for the film to end when it cut to black, and yet the more I thought about it, the more the final moments felt absolutely correct. The best thing an international film festival can do is introduce us to vital works of world cinema not yet acquiring U.S. distribution, and this is assuredly one of them.

“A Thief’s Daughter” screens at 5:45pm on Monday, October 21st, and at 8:30pm on Tuesday, October 22nd, with actress Greta Fernández in attendance.

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Pihla Vitala in Zaida Bergroth’s “Maria’s Paradise.” Courtesy of CIFF.

Maria’s Paradise

Late in Zaida Bergroth’s fact-based thriller, a song materialized that sounded naggingly familiar. It wasn’t until later that I identified the composition as a hauntingly subdued version of Pietro Mascagni’s “Cavalleria rusticana: Intermezzo,” a piece most famously used for the opening credits of Scorsese’s “Raging Bull.” The image seared into cinephiles’ minds of De Niro punching the air in an otherwise empty ring is a fitting metaphor for the cult in “Maria’s Paradise,” which fights off all intrusion of the outside world in order to reign supreme, if only in their own mind. Led by Maria (Pihla Vitala), a woman who claimed from childhood that she could communicate with God, the group of followers conspire to cover for one another while carrying out her orders to kill those branded as adversaries. Only after young devotee Salome (a wonderful Satu Tulli Karhu) befriends a prostitute, Malin (Saga Sarkola), in need of shelter does the evil reality of the community threaten to spill out into the light. Bergroth is superb at building suspense, making us consistently uncertain of where Salome’s allegiance will ultimately fall. With her hairdo modeled after Louise Brooks, Maria lives a luxurious lifestyle at the expense of her underlings, embodying the hypocrisy of organized religion. She’s as repugnant a figure as Charles Manson, which makes the even-handed title card that concludes the narrative seem all the more incongruous.

“Maria’s Paradise” screens at 7:15pm on Saturday, October 26th, and at 11:30am on Sunday, October 27th, with actress Satu Tuuli Karhu and producer Daniel Kuitunen in attendance.

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Melvil Poupaud in François Ozon’s “By the Grace of God.” Courtesy of CIFF.

By the Grace of God

Denis Ménochet is a marvelous actor. It was his stealthily guarded demeanor that raised the tension exponentially in his encounter with Christoph Waltz during the opening of “Inglourious Basterds,” and it was the wounded vulnerability he brought to the role of an estranged father in last year’s astonishing thriller, “Custody,” that made his abusive nature all the more monstrous. Now Ménochet reveals a new shade of his screen persona in this ripped-from-the-headlines drama from France’s ever-surprising auteur, François Ozon (on the heels of his erotic brain-twister, “Double Lover”). Ménochet plays one of three whistleblowers (along with Melvil Poupaud and Swann Arlaud) who break their silence about being molested as children by a priest, Father Preynat (Bernard Verley, whose inexplicable grin simultaneously boils and chills the blood). Cardinal Barbarin (François Marthouret) chooses to live in willful denial, preferring to call Preynat a “pedo-sexual” rather than a “pedophile” because of his alleged love of children. Of course, pedophilia is all about power and arrested sexuality, acted upon and enabled with no regard to the robbery of victims’ innocence. Taking out his rage on a set of drums, Ménochet brings a welcome irreverence to the picture while serving as an anchor of resilience, even when his own brother fails to lend support. I could imagine this breathless narrative easily being expanded into a more satisfying miniseries, a la Netflix’s “Unbelievable,” but as a 137-minute exposé, it is gripping and essential viewing.

“By the Grace of God” screens at 5:45pm on Tuesday, October 22nd, with director François Ozon in attendance, and at 8:30pm on Wednesday, October 23rd.

For the complete list of films and showtimes, or to purchase tickets, visit the official site of the Chicago International Film Festival.

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