Chicago International Film Festival: Quantity and diversity are not the enemy of the good

October 5, 2012

The Chicago International Film Festival is often considered a festival without a strong identity. It doesn’t have the star-studded, deal-making scene of a festival like Toronto or even New York. Nor is it a critical darling, with a small, edgily curated set of films that fussier film critics can fully endorse. In fact, one long-standing criticism of CIFF is that it tries to do too much for too many. And it's true there is no shortage of films here: more than 170, including features, documentaries and shorts.

But in recent years quantity and variety are not the enemies of good – even great – cinema. Instead, the array of films suggest CIFF is benefiting from stability among its programming staff, who now have enough years under their collective belt (and perhaps clout?) to start leaving their mark. In my view, that's especially true of the 48th edition, which kicks off next Thursday, and looks like a winner. Every category is full of strong and interesting contenders, many of them opportunities to ‘come see the world,’ as this year’s CIFF theme would have it.

The "centerpiece" film is the ambitious Cloud Atlas, tri-directed by the Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer, all of whom will apparently attend the screening. But equally epic and challenging fare can be found in Holy Motors, in which French director Leos Carax creates a character (played by Denis Levant) who doesn’t so much develop as morph from corporate big wig to bag lady and beyond. You’ll also be able to catch up on other festival friendly international directors, including Abbas Kiarostami (Like Someone in Love), Olivier Assayas (Something in the Air), the Taviani Brothers (Caesar Must Die) and Carlos Reygadas (Post Tenebras Lux).

Many of the features by less well-known directors investigate real-world events that have rippled around the world. Ibrahim El-Batout’s Winter of Discontent is an Egyptian film that dramatizes the events of Tahrir Square. And while a number of American independent films have fruitfully deployed the soldier-back-from war narrative, not many films have tackled the re-integration of terrorists into their communities. At CIFF there are two. Nina Grosse’s The Weekend follows an RAF terrorist back from 18 years in prison, and Merzak Allouache’s The Repentant examines a young Algerian’s efforts to reform and return home.

Meanwhile some of the more interesting looking documentaries turn inward, by tackling film history and culture. Room 237 explores the obsessive interpretive work by fans of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. And if you’re interested in the history of Egyptian cinema and one of its stars, be sure to see The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni, by Rania Stephan, which imaginatively reconstructs the life and performances of the great Middle Eastern actress.

I’m also excited by some of the work coming from directors closer to home, in the "City and State" category. Chicagoans Clayton Brown and Monica Long Ross once again prove up to the challenge of “storifying” science with The Believers, which examines the debacle around the discovery of “cold fusion.” And Danny Green’s Mr. Sophistication promises a low-key comedian-comeback tale with an intriguing cast: Harry Lennix, Tatum O’Neil and Robert Patrick (who played that dangerously fluid cyborg in the second Terminator film). 

So what does it all add up to? Like the proper Midwestern film festival it is, I think CIFF finds its meaning in the middle. Maybe it's not the most exciting event. But as Toronto goes ever more Hollywood, Chicago manages to consistently offers diverse audiences easy access to a representative array of international films. Festival goers also have the chance to hobnob and talk with emerging directors from countries as disparate as the United Arab Emirates, Albania and Iceland. And by foregrounding local filmmakers as well as high profile directors and actors who got their start here the festival makes clear that even Chicago can stake a claim in the broader cinematic world.

The 48th Chicago International Film Festival runs October 11-25 at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois Street.