Chicago International Film Festival 2016: Part One

This is my first year attending the Chicago International Film Festival, hooray! I’m seeing a handful of movies, most of them part of the After Dark program.

My plans are to attend screenings in two “clumps,” the first consisting of this past weekend, covered in this article. I saw two films, the dark Mexican fantasy The Darkness (Spanish title Las tinieblas), and the biopic Christine. The second clump will be from next week Sunday to Wednesday, and will definitely feature Alice Lowe’s Prevenge and the Macedonian crime drama Amok, and hopefully a couple more.

The Darkness

The Darkness

Mexico, 2016. AKA Las tinieblasDirected by Daniel Castro Zimbrón. 94 minutes.

Set on a world of eternal twilight, in a fog-shrouded forest, where a family of four hides from an unseen beast, The Darkness feels more like a morbid fairy tale than a horror movie. The average literate filmgoer should be able to draw comparisons to at least two or three Guillermo del Toro movies by the end of the first act. Just to drive the point home, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s son Brontis plays the father. Director/co-writer Daniel Castro Zimbrón offers up enough enigma, atmosphere, and enchantment to slake the thirst of any fan of enigmatic dark fantasy, with a few twists into the genuinely unexpected and a looming, menacing forest that nearly becomes a character in its own right.

Hell, you might even suss out what’s actually happening; I think I may have, but I’m keeping my mouth shut, for the time being.

Just in case.

Christine

Christine

United States, 2016. Directed by Antonio Campos. 120 minutes.

One of two films released this year centered on the story of Christine Chubbuck, a Sarasota-based news reporter who shot herself on live television in 1974 (the other being the “documentary” Kate Plays Christine, not playing CIFF as far as I know). Star Rebecca Hall, director Antonio Campos, and screenwriter Craig Shilowich paint a complex portrait, positioning Chubbuck between the pressures of personal and professional disillusion on the one side and a struggle with mental illness on the other. The cultural turmoil of the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s fall from grace serve as the background. (As someone who faces a few of the same issues as the film’s version of Christine, its portrayal of coping with severe depression and loneliness in a world growing increasingly madder rang particularly true to me.)

It’s not all doom and gloom, thanks to endearingly eccentric performances from Hall and her supporting cast, led by Dexter’s Michael C. Hall, Rectify’s J. Smith-Cameron, and playwright Tracy Letts. But ultimately, the message is a downbeat one: we as humans don’t have to be alone, the film seems to say, but it also offers no easy answers for those who find it difficult to find and reach out to others.

A scene from DER SAMURAI.

Der Samurai

Germany. Directed by Till Kleinert, 2014. Starring Michel Diercks, Pit Bukowski, Uwe Preuss. 79 minutes. In German, with English subtitles.

If your experience with genre cinema has been too safe, staid, straightforward, and just plain normal recently, I’d like to introduce you to Till Kleinert, the first-time writer/director of Der Samurai. Prepare to meet your new bizarro German Jesus.

The plot is weird enough. Michel Diercks plays Jakob, a nebbishy young policeman whom nobody seems to take seriously. But when der titular samurai, a cross-dressing, katana-wielding maniac who might or might not also be a werewolf (Pit Bukowski) comes to town with a mad gleam in his eye and an urge to do his “Connor MacLeod on speed” routine, Germany’s answer to Barney Fife might be the only one who can bring the madman’s path of destruction to a halt.

But Der Samurai’s true strangeness comes in its thematic elements. The apparently symbiotic relationship between Jakob–a guy so repressed he makes Edward Woodward’s character in The Wicker Man look like Lady goddamn Gaga–and the “free and wild” (to quote Lovecraft) “samurai” suggests many metaphors and interpretations over the course of the film, not all of them mutually exclusive. Why does Jakob occasionally behave out-of-character? Is the Samurai even real? What connects either character with the wolf who menaces at town at night, for whom Jakob leaves bags of raw meat in the hope of sating its bestial, primal hunger?

Your guess is as good as mine. Kleiner provides a possible hint in his description of his film as “a queer thriller,” but he clearly wants the audience to make up its own mind. Each viewer might have a radically different idea of what Der Samurai is really “about.” Or they might just take everything at face value, sit back and enjoy the weirdness and violence. I’m not always the best with symbols or metaphors unless I’ve lived with a film for a few years, so that’s the route I took. At any rate, Der Samurai has the potential to inspire one hell of a variation on Room 237.

Moving on to the more concrete aspects of the production, Kleinert’s visual aesthetic very much impressed me–capturing perfectly the spooky, middle-of-nowhere feel that small rural towns often have in the wee hours of the night. Conrad Oleak’s haunting score adds to the atmosphere. Unfortunately, the front half of the film does seem a bit overloaded with forest chases that drag on a bit too long.

Bukowski can’t help but steal the film with his antics as the title character, a larger-than-life figure with a boner to match. Those who like their psychosis with a side order of raving and drooling will love the samurai to bits. Jakob is significantly less interesting, but that’s the entire point of his character. Diercks pushes his repression very close to the line where the character stops being relatable, but never crosses it.

Der Samurai is obtuse and obscure but never, ever dull. There’s an audience out there waiting for it, to grab the film with its grubby little fingers and claim it as its own. If this is the sort of thing you dig, put it towards the top of your watch-list.

DER SAMURAI