Talking Screens, A Week In Chicago Film, October 27-November 2, 2023
“Is this island Satan’s last stronghold?” muses young American evangelical missionary John Chau in the posthumous portrait of his foolhardy 2018 expedition in which he hopes to trespass on North Sentinel Island, protected by law against interlopers; Chau was killed by arrows. The horrifying arrogance on display in the rich, skeptical yet compassionate portrait in National Geographic Films’ “The Mission,” from filmmakers Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss (with ace Chicago editor Aaron Wickenden) is matched in awfulness only by what befalls Chau after his attempt to convert the isolated, Indigenous Sentinelese people, whose language he did not speak, to the gospel. (Moss and McBaine’s earlier films include “Boys State.”)
A friend sets up Chau’s personal dilemma: “My friend John paid some pirates to go to an island to tell people about Jesus Christ when he knew that he had no business there. My friend did something stupid… and courageous, and bold. And I wish I was that bold. I wish… I wish my faith was that solid. To believe, like, that the Gospel is real. Whoa.” Cut and dried as that setup may make it sound, the filmmakers pull the disparate strands into a convincing portrait of a life, its experiences and its vainglory, through Chau’s own diaries and archive of video, his father’s words, animation, and the still-bewildered testimony of others, one of whom sees the fatal folly as “ultimately kind of an imaginative act.” Asks his father, “How can such an intelligent, seemingly well-prepared explorer commit such a reckless mistake?” The ache of “The Mission” lies in its gentle approach, its compassion toward all those in Chau’s circle. There’s a hint of Herzog in the quest, but also in the questioning of Chau’s crusade and folly, in his mission and in his violent martyrdom to his cause. It’s a wildly prismatic work, filled with intense philosophical inquiry. Opens at the Music Box, Friday, October 27.
Lightly likable surrealism, with parallel narratives that share many influences, including the airiness of contemporary Argentine cinema, along with the larkiness of South American literature and the Spanish absurdity of Buñuel, veteran Argentine director Rodrigo Moreno’s “Los Delincuentes” (The Delinquents) fills its three-hour space in an aleatory fashion that slows as narrative as his characters find a new pace at which to live, to breathe. It’s a sneaky, tender marvel.
It’s also a dry, distended comedy about freedom, space and the elongation of time, a portrait of two workers who will share many unlikely things (including anagrammatic names), whose lives twine and double, in what must be the most slow-motion of low-tech bank heists of the twenty-first century. Morán (Daniel Eliás) is a bank worker in Buenos Aires who conjures a plan of escape for himself and his unwitting coworker Román (Esteban Bigliardi): he will steal just enough cash, in dollars, not Argentine pesos, which will fund their lives until retirement, never having to work a killing office job again. The schlubby, bearded Morán springs his cheeky plan on tall, diffident Román after the deed is done: here, I’m going to turn myself in, hide this duffel of dreams for three-and-half-years, never contact me, and at the end of that time, we’ll be free to divide the cash. It’s a shaggy-human story. It’s also never the movie you’re expecting: there’s quiet, quirky genius at most every turn.
A chunk of the charm of the city passages is how Moreno effortlessly captures the streets and sensations of downtown Buenos Aires: it’s both quotidian and documentary, capturing the moment in which this pair of Porteños live and the beautiful metropolis around them that is also invisible to them, hardly looking up from counting stacks of cash and rubber-stamping redundant documents, a hamster wheel.
Writes Moreno, “There is a sentence by the Argentine writer Rodolfo Enrique Fogwill that I like a lot and it is relevant to my work: ‘I’m not interested in realism, I’m interested in the real.’ I think ‘The Delinquents’ is a fable set in a specific space, Buenos Aires and the Cordoba hills, in an unspecific time, it could happen today or yesterday. The film runs through a timeless style that allows me to liberate the whole thing from the concept of realism.” (There’s more than a little of the style of portraying human locomotion and objects and gestures of the French filmmaker Robert Bresson.)
“I don’t want to owe anything to reality, that’s why the bank looks like if it were in the sixties or seventies,” he says. For the observant, along the way Moreno packs in other influences, including a literal citation from Bresson’s last film, “L’argent,” (1983), a tragedy set in motion by a bad bank note handed off to an innocent. But that’s only texture: the sensation of the picture is mostly the transformation of the characters—Morán, Román, Norma, Morna—from merely being acted upon to acting in their own life across the four years of the tale, even listening to the wind in the grasses closer to the sky on Cordoba. “The main feature of this film to me is probably the diversity: there are many characters, many locations, a lot of time goes by from the starting point to the end, and the characters go through different stages and emotions like adrenaline, fear, intrigue, pleasure, tedium, love, absurdness and adventure, among others,” the director says. “It’s fair to say that there are many films inside ‘The Delinquents.'” Of his timeless comedy, he says, “Modern society has led us to live lives that we don’t want to live: there are obligations, formal obligations that strip our freedoms. Now, in days of economic crisis, we depend on obligations more than ever, but we also depend on technology, our existences have become totally dependent. Morán’s decision invites us to get rid of this fate.” Opens at Siskel, Friday, October 27.
Nisha Pahuja’s fierce, disturbing, yet hopeful longitudinal documentary “To Kill A Tiger” portrays what happens when a father confronts the rape of their thirteen-year-old daughter in a small village in Jharkhand, in the east of India, by three men, one of whom is her cousin. Moving toward the trial of the trio, the village tires of the presence of Pahuja’s crew. This kind of violence is kept secret: along with being hurt, the girl has been “ruined,” the village needs not be shamed. Shouldn’t she just marry? A portrait of misogyny, violence, shunning and ultimately, resistance, “To Kill A Tiger” is also a portrait of lasting love, and after its brutal course, arrives at an unexpected and triumphant moment. “I have been fighting for gender equality my entire life. As I delve deeper and deeper into the reasons for this disparity it’s become clear that patriarchy is a prison for both men and women,” the Canadian filmmaker says in a director’s note. “I wanted to tell the story of an extraordinary man who breaks free from this prison and chooses to stand by his daughter in a country where most rapes go unreported and a culture that sees boys and men as superior. It is my hope that this film and our campaign helps to amplify [the father’s] voice. I believe he’s exceptional and that he can be a role model for men around the world.” The executive producers include Mindy Kaling and Dev Patel. Opens at Siskel, Friday, October 27.
Justine Triet’s French courtroom procedural-family drama “Anatomy Of A Fall” won this spring’s Palme d’Or at Cannes; it’s the fourth acquisition in a row from that festival for American distributor NEON, after “Parasite,” “Titane” and “Triangle Of Sadness.” NEON founder and CEO Tom Quinn says, “We think this film is on par with ‘Kramer vs. Kramer’ and ‘Gone Girl.'” That’s a punch of a bunch of comparisons! Opens Friday, October 27 at the Music Box.
Drafthouse debuts the documentary, “Sly,” with the performer of the title holding court over the telling of a career of over half-a-century. Drafthouse, opens Friday, October 27.
“The Killer,” adapted by Andrew Kevin Walker (“Se7en,” “8mm”) from “Le Tueur” (the French comic book by writer Matz and artist Luc Jacamon) is David Fincher’s latest feature, in a brief big-screen run before its Netflix berth in a few weeks. Michael Fassbender plays an unnamed assassin who girdles the globe, including Paris, New Orleans and Chicago, after fumbling an assignment, as eleven Smiths songs chart his path. Opens Friday in theaters.
Roger Ebert relayed a famous story in a review of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s highly effective revenge thriller, “Diabolique” (35mm): “A man wrote to Alfred Hitchcock: ‘Sir, After seeing “Diabolique,” my daughter was afraid to take a bath. Now she has seen your “Psycho” and is afraid to take a shower. What should I do with her?’ Hitchcock replied: ‘Send her to the dry cleaners.'” Part of Bride Of Music Box Of Horrors, Saturday, October 28, 11:30am.
Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein” is pretty perfect for a filmmaker sometimes considered a rudimentary visual director. It’s also one of the funniest movies ever made. The cast of the stage production of Brooks’ musical from the Mercury Theatre, just up the street, will appear before. Bride of Music Box Of Horrors, Sunday, October 29, 11:30am.
Rockefeller Memorial Chapel and Doc Films will present “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (1920) as their annual Halloween silent film screening with Jay Warren on the chapel’s E.M. Skinner organ. Tickets $8 in advance here; $10 at door.
An invaluable retrospective of the films of Ang Lee continues with the bleak, bold, beautiful “Ice Storm” (35mm). Doc Films, Saturday, October 28, 4pm. And: the rarely revived “Lust, Caution.”
This is bold: to make a film of its own style and pace, but within a budget that allows it, instead of ruining its financiers, to use the goodwill earned from a movie like “Brokeback Mountain.” Ang Lee’s NC-17-rated, 2007 “Lust, Caution” (35mm), drawn from a short story by Eileen Chang, adapted by “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” co-writers Wang Hui Ling and James Schamus (who co-produced and was also the head of distributor Focus Features at the time), is a Chinese-language art movie and proud of it. A fistful of early reviewers dismissed the film as the equivalent of Michael Cimino following “The Deer Hunter” with “Heaven’s Gate,” but they’re just silly. The movie is an espionage thriller set in World War II Shanghai, for the most part, and makes literal invocations of Hitchcock, among other filmmakers.
But the noir elements have a blush, in the sexual grappling between a young Hong Kong acting student, Wong Chia-chi (Tang Wei) who is sent to befriend, to bed and to kill a political figure in charge of torture, Mr. Yee (Tony Leung). The sex scenes were shot on padded sets as in the filming of hand-to-hand combat, if that’s any indication of how the issues of power get depicted. Wei has slightly wonky eyes in a round face, and her expressions are more evocative than the clean, simple lines of the narrative. (They tend to travel a bit when her character dissembles, followed by a purse of her small mouth.) Still, there is an explosive moment that follows the key, definitive decision of one of the characters, that all the talk and fuss (and mah-jongg games) add up to: I will simply say it is like the launch of a rocket and is the most masterful instant of a well-observed, luxuriously mounted, committedly languorous movie. There are details galore, including a usage of the backs of characters in the manner of Carl Th. Dreyer (a key director for Schamus, who wrote the slim, invaluable monograph, “Carl Theodor Dreyer’s ‘Gertrud’: The Moving Word”); Wei weeping at a close-up of Ingrid Bergman in a battered 16mm projection of “Casablanca”; the interiors of cafes and bars that emulate lost Kowloon; and a last shot that holds its breath, and shadow, for the proper, illuminating instant. 158m. Doc Films, Wednesday, November 1, 7pm.