(This dispatch is part of our coverage of the 2019 Chicago International Film Festival.)
With all the wind and mist outside, I’m starting to think I’ve spent so much time in a theater that I’ve woken up in next April. It’s 60 and brisk and, in spring tradition, I’m the only one on the street sporting shorts and hoodie. It’s almost like the previous five days of nothing but movies has made my mind fold into itself at the creases.
At least I’m into that sort of thing. It should fit, too, that my first movie for CIFF day six was a deeply personal documentary in the former of My Father and Me. Nick Broomfield’s back on the scene soon after Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love, and for a while, his latest seemed as if he’d matured past his more self-centered impulses. As he examines his relationship with his father, Maurice, he looks at Dad’s photography of post-World War II Britain and how it impacted his own work as a filmmaker.
It initially acts like a more restrained effect from the director. The piece isn’t so much about the relationship so much as it is a meditation on the ethics of art: how it helps people cope, how it depicts social change. In that regard, My Father and Me works. It’s when Broomfield actually tracks the central dynamic that it falls apart to “me” and “people that aren’t me,” reducing others’ words and efforts into little more than therapy for himself. It isn’t that it couldn’t have worked. It’s that it exists between myopic and solipsistic, where growth is nominal.
At the least the next doc stepped back much more: Dror Moreh’s The Human Factor looks at the United States’ role in the Israel-Palestinian conflict through Bill Clinton’s presidency. This isn’t about him, though; the film largely sees him through news reports and telephoto lenses. It plays a little too distant at first. Then it shows to be refreshingly so, a little more holistic. Dennis Ross, Aaron David Miller, and Daniel C. Kurtzer’s interviews do the heavy lifting, but the incisive part is how Moreh talks to them, showing their words to prove his point.
A few scenes hear the director off-camera as he asks them about their ethics, to which some admit their moral ambiguity. Whether these words carry apologies or speak to their social dissonance from the viewer almost goes beside the point, however. The words ring truer and truer. Tie that to how Moreh gets increasingly anxious about whether or not we’re too late to make any difference, and The Human Factor makes for a tight (if sometimes rushed and inconsistent) look at a chess match that gives another meaning to “identity politics.”
And while a similar issue touched my next film of the day, it wasn’t until the last third. Yes, Franco Lolli’s Litigante is one of those movies that provides a reprieve from similar efforts but slips towards the end, and while it never derails, its resolution shows underdevelopment when it comes to tonal and narrative flow.
Carolina Sanín stars as Silvia, a single mother whose own mom, Leticia (Leticia Gómez), is struggling with cancer. It’s been gone for a while, but it’s back and it’s getting worse, sending Mom to and from the hospital as Silvia tries to care for her son, Antonio (Antonio Martinez). Her sister and friend (Alejandra Sierra and David Roa, respectively) are able to help but only to a degree, and with her office in a financial scandal, she has… quite a bit on her plate. It’s surprisingly effortless most of the time in its melodrama, but it’s Sanín who carries the movie.
There’s no voguing from her, no sense of self-awareness. She’s as present as the direction is aspirational with she and Lolli teasing—but not giving in to—a concrete endpoint. Litigante doesn’t shine a ton behind the camera, but I have to say that the script’s rotation of inner and outer conflicts lends credence. It’s admirable in how it allows a woman to be flawed, stressed, and capable. It’s the last half hour that slips up. It tries to give in to traditional resolutions and hold onto its social realism, and even if it doesn’t feel like a cheat, it signals a lack of confidence.
And oh, did someone say confidence? Because the next movie has more than enough to go around, which is just one of its strengths. I can’t quite remember the last time a movie made me feel as sick as Instinct, which, despite its title, isn’t a monster movie. It might as well be, however: Halina Reijn’s psychological drama follows Nicoline (Carice van Houten), a therapist who’s just started at a new clinic. As luck would have it, her patient is basically if Hannibal Lecter were a convicted rapist.
His name is Idris (Marwan Kenzari). He oozes predation and, in the cruelest twist of fate for Nicoline, shares something in common with her own fantasies. The difference, obviously, is that he is a rapist, and that morbid curiosity isn’t consent. He’s a psychopath who exploits her, and as they veer towards what could be called a flirtation, he uses the age-old excuse that he wouldn’t be at fault in this situation should anything happen because she’s the professional here. Stoically realized by Jasper Wolf (Monos), it’s as callous as its dynamics are horrific.
Instinct is remarkable because it doesn’t seem remarkable. Each and every step confronts the culture’s misguided understanding of consent: the interest in the predator, the confusion of the victim, every bit of body language and vocabulary that says no except for a verbatim use of the word. Not since Irreversible has rape been so traumatic on film, but Instinct reaches that level in an entirely different way. It’s beat-for-beat accurate come its third act. Oh, and another thing: this is her first time directing.
I can’t say I want to see it again, but I really need to. More importantly, I really hope rapists end up seeing it. Just maybe they’ll realize what they’ve done.