Updated: November 15, 2012 6:24AM
Among the must-see titles as the Chicago International Film Festival moves into its first full week are “The Repentant (Algeria/France) and “Rhino Season” (Iraqi Kurdistan/Turkey). All films screen at AMC River East, 322 E. Illinois, unless otherwise noted. For ticket information, go to www.chicagofilmfestival.com.
“Benji” (USA), 11 a.m.: Music video directors Coodie and Chike salute the late Ben Wilson, a Chicago high school basketball star shot in 1984. Had he lived, “he would have been the greatest cat to ever come out of the city,” claims one admirer of the Simeon Career Academy senior. This documentary from ESPN Films, unfortunately, scores little insight into the city streets that shaped the hoopster or his killer. “Our whole thing was we wanted to make thugs cry,” Coodie told ESPNChicago.com. Then what? Also, 6 p.m. Wednesday and 8:30 p.m. Thursday.
“Marie Kroyer” (Denmark), 5:45 p.m.: Bille August directs a proto-feminist period melodrama about the wife of painter Peder Severin Kroyer (1851-1909). “I don’t know if I’m me or the woman in the paintings,” frets his loyal spouse and much-admired model. Such yearnings mystify her supercilious husband: “Horrid thought, really. Who really wants your find yourself?” His mental illness will put her and their little daughter in increasing danger. Will she find love with a Swedish composer who can value his freedom as an artist as much as she does hers as a woman? Also, 8 p.m. Oct 23 and 6 p.m. Oct 24.
“The Repentant” (Algeria/France), 8 p.m.: Merzak Allouache revisits a recent troubled period when Algerian authorities granted a conditional amnesty to armed extremists, often termed terrorists. In this superior drama, one former “Brother” defects and attempts to fit into society. Villagers want to kill him. A cop in the city wants him to inform. The title character will undertake an ambiguous mission to resolve past trauma. He leads a split-up professional couple to an unmarked grave. Like my favorites in this year’s fest, this one ends with a stunning last shot: cries of “God is great!” echo across a vast, tragic vista. Also, 6:45 p.m. Wednesday and 2:45 p.m. Thursday.
“The Cleaner” (Peru), 8:30 p.m.: Adrian Saba directs this unusually touching portrait of a man employed to clean a city. It’s corpses, not litter, that he picks up. He cleans streets, sidewalks, stores and homes during an epidemic that is depopulating Lima. Then this loner finds an 8-year-old boy cowering in a closet and takes him home. Thoughtful camera work makes for existential understatement. Just look at the weird way the cleaner moves his broom, and the beautiful way he takes leave of his only companion. Also, 5:45 p.m. Tuesday and 4 p.m. Friday.
“Kuma” (Austria), 2:45 p.m.: Umut Dag traces a 19-year-old bride from her village into an immigrant household in Vienna. The Turkish custom of “the second wife” means that her husband will not be the young man she married, but his father. The “first wife,” near death with cancer, welcomes her replacement. The newcomer’s old ways clash with her Austrian-assimilated kin. With lovely framings of family gatherings and glances, this humanist drama honors the ways a family can embrace and estrange its members. Also, 7 p.m. Oct. 20 and 5:15 p.m. Oct 21.
“Consuming Spirits” (USA), 7 p.m.: Chris Sullivan, a School of the Art Institute prof, deftly animates a 15-year stretch of tangled lives in a Rust Belt burg. He uses pencil drawings, cutouts, puppets and frame-by-frame camera moves. Besides voicing one character, Sullivan sings and plays seven instruments on the soundtrack. Compulsively eccentric detail makes for a wry bewitching texture: characters named Gentian Violet and Victor Blue work at the local paper, the Daily Suggester. Also, 9:30 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. Oct. 22.
“The Believers” (USA), 8 p.m.: Documentaries on the history of science are rare. Chicago directors Clayton Brown and Monica Long Ross, with backing from the Richard H. Driehaus Fund, go back to an infamous 1989 press conference at the University of Utah, when scientists Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons claimed their experiments proved cold fusion could generate power from water. Instead of delving into the bad physics, the film focuses on celebrity and career. Also unanswered: Why believe faulty experiments are “the key to liberating the human race”? Also, 2 p.m. Oct. 20.
“Meeting Leila” (Iran), 8:30 p.m.: “When I smoke the ideas rush into my head,” explains a two-pack-a-day Camels smoker. This “ideas man” makes ads for local businesses. He promises to quit before his wedding. The couple had met cute when her VW broke down and began to roll toward his VW. His cigarette habit, however, may wreck their marital prospects. Adel Yaraghi directs a screenplay he co-wrote with Iranian icon Abbas Kiarostami that diverts with absurdist touches. Also, 8:30 p.m. Wednesday and noon Oct 20.
“Rhino Season” (Iraqi Kurdistan/Turkey), 3:30 p.m.: Writer-director Bahman Ghobadi’s drama is my favorite film in the festival so far. A poet imprisoned during the Islamic Revolution is released 27 years later. Everyone thought he died long ago, due to the “fake grave staged by the government” noted in an opening title. Now he seeks his wife, whose father was one of the shah’s colonels. Sentenced to 10 years, she left for Istanbul after her release. Their tragedy is compounded by a third party and the birth of twins. Fate takes on a mythic irony as the poet is nearly mute now. Camera focus, reflections and water droplets are sublimely designed to articulate what his liberty will let him see. Also, 2:15 p.m. Oct. 20 and 7:45 p.m. Oct. 21.
Bill Stamets is a locally based free-lance writer and critic.