Martin Sheen plays a priest who opens The Stella, the first cinema in an Irish town during the '50s in "Stella Days," which opens the 16th annual European Union Film Festival, starting March 1, 2013, at the Gene Siskel Film Center.
16th annual EUROPEAN UNION FILM FESTIVAL
When: Friday to March 28
Where: Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State
Tickets: $11; students, $7; GSFC members, $6; pass, $50 (for six films)
Updated: April 2, 2013 6:04AM
The 16th annual European Union Film Festival is Chicago’s best sampler of continental titles. For this year’s edition, the Gene Siskel Film Center lines up 61 premieres for the largest showcase in North America for the cinema of the European Union nations.
If Hollywood gave the world the Western, Europe gave us the art film. Diverse dramas in the fest’s first week converge in motifs. A few plots use romantic sailboats. Another pair boasts ostriches on the run. The two best films, “The Wall” and “The Fifth Season,” happen to hinge on a mystifying anomaly in nature.
The festival always opens with a film from the country currently designated for the presidency of the Council of European Union. This year it is Ireland, so “Stella Days” screens at 6 p.m. Friday, followed by a reception with Irish cheese, beer and whiskey. The host is Aidan Cronin, the consul general of Ireland, whose prior postings include Beijing, Canberra and Tehran.
In “Stella Days,” a bishop and a politician in the ’50s behold Hollywood in horror. Ireland’s first official censor, in fact, was appalled by “the ‘Los Angelesation’ of Ireland.” “I think that film represents a time and place that is long gone,” says Cronin, who watched “Star Wars” and “Hawaii Five-O” as a teen in Cork. “The Americanization of Irish culture was something we took for granted. It was an unstoppable tide.”
6 p.m. “Stella Days” (Ireland/Norway/Germany): Set in Tipperary, in 1956, this affectionate drama borrows from Michael Doorley’s memoir “Stella Days 1957-1967: The Life and Times of a Rural Irish Cinema,” about a priest (Martin Sheen) who opens the first cinema in a provincial Irish town. “Most of these Hollywood stories and the manner of their telling are alien to our Gaelic culture and way of life,” chides a cleric. Siding with the cineaste priest, director Thaddeus O’Sullivan confesses in the film’s press notes: “I think I too had more trust in the cinema than I ever had in the church!” Also, 5 p.m. Sunday.
3 p.m., “Tabu” (Portugal/Germany): Miguel Gomes directs an arty black-and-white romance spanning five decades. Opening near Mount Tabu with a “melancholy crocodile,” this colonial African reverie looks like a perfume ad but gets far beyond that. Also, 8 p.m. Wednesday.
3 p.m., “Gypsy” (Slovakia): Martin Sulik directs a coming-of-age saga with humanist realism. “A gypsy can live like a human here only when he stops being a gypsy,” despairs a mentor for a 14-year-old Romany boy dealing with his dad’s ghost and a thuggish stepdad. Also, 8 p.m. Thursday.
5:15 p.m., “Alois Nebel” (Czech Republic): Tomas Lunak depicts a train dispatcher suffering flashbacks to the post-WWII expulsion of Germans. Based on a graphic novel trilogy, this dour yet alluring tale uses rotoscoping on black-and-white film. Also, 8 p.m. Tuesday.
5:15 p.m., “Sightseers” (U.K.): Ben Wheatley, who calls his film “good sick fun,” directs a thriller about wicked spree killers in a RV. Alice Lowe and Steve Oram co-write and co-star. Oram’s character justifies his crimes: “I just want to be feared and respected. It’s not too much to ask from life, is it?” Also, 6 p.m. Thursday.
7 p.m., “Superclasico” (Denmark): Ole Christian Madsen delivers a pleasing cross-cultural comedy in which a Copenhagen wine shop owner takes his 16-year-old son to Buenos Aires in a quest to win back his wife from a soccer star. Like several fest films, this one makes special use of a narrator. Also, 6 p.m. Tuesday.
7 p.m., “Ginger & Rosa” (U.K.): Sally Potter sets her observant story of friendship amidst the Ban the Bomb protests in 1962 London. “She’s not disturbed. She’s interesting. And she’s my best friend” is how Ginger (Elle Fanning) defends Rosa (Alice Englert, daughter of Australian auteur Jane Campion). There also are spot-on supporting turns by Annette Bening, Timothy Spall and Oliver Platt.
8:45 p.m., “Faith Love + Whiskey” (Bulgaria): Neli (Ana Stojanovska) is torn between a Manhattan fiancee and a sweetheart back in Sofia. Kristina Nikolova directs a bicultural romance about ambivalence with a sidelong look at wedding customs. Also, 8 p.m. Monday.
9 p.m., “Blind Spot” (Luxembourg/Belgium): In Christophe Wagner’s suspenseful thriller, one cop is set up to uncover the killer of his brother, another cop. Though packed with about every troubled-cop cliche in the book, it works. Also, 8:15 p.m. Monday.
3 p.m., “The Day I Saw Your Heart” (France): Directed by Jennifer Devoldere, this is an American-style comedy set in a Paris of Starbucks with Michel Blanc and Melanie Laurent as a dad and daughter with slightly goofy issues. He plays golf with her ex-boyfriends. She makes X-ray art. Intergenerational frictions yield gauche fun. Also, 6 p.m. Thursday.
5 p.m. “The Wall” (Austria/Germany): Julian Roman Polser adapts Marlen Haushofer’s 1963 novel about an invisible wall that surrounds a woman stranded in the mountains after an apocalyptic event. Actress Martina Gedeck (“The Lives of Others”) and the director’s Bavarian mountain hound bond for an unsettling study of isolation. Distributed by Chicago’s own Music Box Films and highly recommended. Also, 6 p.m. Wednesday.
7 p.m., “Everybody in Our Family (Romania/Netherlands): Radu Jude immerses us in a rude soap opera about a pathetic divorcee who tries to take his 5-year-old daughter on a holiday outing. Everyone dumps on him and hits back. Abuse and absurdity ensue. Also, 6 p.m. Monday.
7:15 p.m., “The Fifth Season” (Belgium/Netherlands/France): Peter Brosens and Jessica Woodworth co-direct a weird tale of modern country folk in crisis. Winter won’t end. Cows lack milk. Locals caw like crows, gather flies for protein, and chase a beloved rooster with a lawn mower as jets thunder overhead. A Pieter Bruegel painting comes to life in “The Twilight Zone.” Also, 8:15 p.m. Wednesday.
Bill Stamets is a Chicago writer and reviewer.