Shortened CEUFF featured thought-provoking films by women

Sadly, this year’s Chicago European Film Festival at the Gene Siskel Film Center had to close early as a result of the coronavirus. “In suspending our programming we simply did what was necessary to do our part in protecting the public health,” Director of Programming Barbara Scharres told FF2 Media in a follow-up interview. “There was no question of not doing this. Our regrets are purely that the public will not have a chance to see some wonderful and amazing films that [we] had selected with such care and enthusiasm.” 

When asked about the choice of films to include in the festival, Scharres says she and her colleague Marty Rubin diligently select films with varying criteria. “Aside from artistic excellence, we expect a film to represent an authentic voice of its maker and its culture. How each film does that is different. We seek to represent established film artists, but also pay special to emerging directors. Representing the work of women and minorities is important to us. … There are a great many women directing films all across Europe, a great development. This means that it took no extra effort on our part to have roughly one-third of festival films directed by women.”

While many of these films never receive distribution or play at all in North America, the Siskel Center strives to bring the scores of films from the 28 (now 27) EU nations to Chicago. “Despite the prevalence of coproductions, especially in Europe, many of these films come from a culturally unique point of view,” Scharres says. “The EU festival is just another way that the Gene Siskel Film Center fulfills its mission to exhibit world cinema, past, present, and future.”

Unfortunately, from logistical and financial points of view, many of the 2020 selections will not be rescreened. So as FF2 Media looks forward to the 2021 Chicago European Union Film Festival, we have two thought-provoking films directed by (or co-directed by) women to look out for in the interim (that we did get a chance to see): Real Love and The Barefoot Emperor.

Real Love (2018) 

Claire Burger (France)

Real Love (FF2 Media’s SWAN Day celebration pick) is about civil servant Mario Messina who is trying to deal with the separation of his wife while trying to care for their teenage daughters. In an attempt to patch up his marriage, he participates in a production in the theater where his wife works. At the same time, he’s muddling through fatherhood with his opinionated daughters who are also working out their own feelings and identities growing up. Eventually, Messina reluctantly realizes that the separation will be final and his daughters will be growing up and leaving soon, too.

While The Barefoot Emperor was a large socio-political satire, Real Love feels rooted in everyday life. I feel like this could be the story of people across the street, watching the end of their relationship with a touch of sadness and denial. It feels like a very human story.

However, I have to wonder, after recent films like Marriage Story where critics have pointed to the overwhelming perspective from the husband’s point of view, why was the decision to have Messina drive the narrative in Real Love? The film focuses on him and his mistakes as a father, whether it’s the incredible messiness of his house or missteps with his younger daughter. Is the film trying to point out why his marriage failed, such as his wife taking care of everything (housework, parenting) without appreciation or help? Do we need another film about “the man child,” helpless without his wife? And what about the perspective of the mother? 

She comes into the narrative sparingly. We find out that she has been spending a lot of time at a local bar, even racking up the highest score in darts. The eldest daughter criticizes her mother for running off without them. I wasn’t sure what to think of the mother. Is she finding herself after 20 years of caring for others or is this meant to suggest her own irresponsibility in the face of the failing marriage?

And then there’s the daughters. One is old enough to have a sense of herself, while the other is just entering teenagerhood and trying to find herself. The father’s missteps with his daughter as well as her own mistakes are cringe-inducing. Again, if this is his parenting style, why is he left with the kids?

Maybe there are no easy answers. Perhaps the film wants to show the messiness of relationships, whether it is between spouses or parents and their children. 

The Barefoot Emperor (2019) 

The Barefoot Emperor

Directors Jessica Woodworth And Peter Brosens (Belgium/Netherlands)

When part of Belgium succeeds from the country, it precipitates in a crisis that results in the fall of the European Union. In its wake, there is the rise of Novo Europa, with significant fascist overtones, to be led by a mysterious Emperor. At the center is the beleaguered but sympathetic King Nicholas III of Belgium and his loyal staff. They all end up at an asylum in the former summer home of former Yugoslav dictator Josip Broz Tito after a historical reenactment of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand goes wrong.

The first 15 minutes of the film are fast-paced and staccato as King Nicholas III tries to get back to Belgium after he discovers the news about the succession on a boat in Istanbul. But once the King arrives in the asylum, the film is allowed to breathe and delve into the absurdity of the situation, both in the unseen European disaster and within the walls of this peculiar asylum and its foreboding director. 

The asylum is a fascinating and foreboding place. Initially, the rules seem reasonable; to protect people’s identities, patients are called by the names of the celebrities who lived in their rooms. But as the film goes on, those rules seem even more bizarre and obtuse as characters introduce themselves as Gandhi. One of the highlights of the films is the constant ridiculous overhead pagings from the central office made throughout the film, such as “Che Guevara” being called for a manicure/pedicure.

I couldn’t help but make comparisons with the recent film JoJo Rabbit. Both films posit critiques of fascism, notably the mindless devotion of symbols and “traditions” along with the casual cruelty against people deemed “Other.” The Barefoot Emperor feels like the perfect satire for the Brexit era, revealing the ridiculousness about concerns about racial purity and culture, through the metaphor of a llama who thinks he’s a zebra.

For me, one of the most poignant scenes in the film was towards the beginning when Nicholas asks his staff: “What is freedom to you?” None of them come up with an answer but the question remained on my mind throughout the entire film. 

Ultimately, the film is a reminder that what fascism can’t stand is laughter and dancing. And yes, there’s a fair number of dance numbers, but don’t get me wrong, this is not a musical movie.

Curiously, I learned that the film is actually a sequel of the mockumentary of King of the Belgians (2016) by the same directors which is summarized in the first 15 minutes of the film, which might explain the choppiness. Now, I’m going to see if I can track down the film, since I’m intrigued. I’d be curious to see how the mockumentary matches up with the straight narrative structure of The Barefoot Emperor. But obviously, seeing the first film is not a requirement for seeing the second.

© Elisa Shoenberger (3/23/20) FF2 Media

Featured photo: Real Love

Photos: Gene Siskel Film Center

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