(This dispatch is part of our coverage of the 2019 Chicago International Film Festival.)
There are two things that scream fall more than the rest of Spooky Season combined. First is the sweet smell of my apartment radiator burning six months of dust off its impossible-to-reach coils. Second is the Chicago International Film Festival, which, in addition to privileging me to catch up with a smorgasbord of festival debuts I missed previously in the year, allows me to test my willpower. It’s not just for seeing multiple movies in a day, though; it’s also for seeing just how well I can live at AMC River East on just espresso.
At least my first movie for the fest wasn’t too trying. A feature debut, Carlo Sironi’s Sole follows 22-year-old Lena (Sandra Dryzmalska), a heavily pregnant Polish woman and her boyfriend, Ermanno (Claudio Segaluscio). They aren’t planning on keeping the baby, though: through a mix of economic instability and ambivalence towards being parents, they plan on giving their daughter to Ermanno’s uncle and aunt (Marco Felli and Barbara Ronchi), both of whom are sterile.
It’s a win-win in theory. One couple gets the family they wanted and the other doesn’t have to spend their days tapping away at a slot machine for cash. But while it sounds like a slog, Sironi and his actors play it straight. They’re quiet, lacking much affect, more than a little jaded. The homes and hospitals would feel barren if it weren’t for their having the bare necessities. All the while, Gergely Pohárnok shoots the film in Academy ratio, wafting in the narrative simplicity just as much as he does the claustrophobia.
And yet, it isn’t constrained. Scenes breathe, and Andrea Maguolo’s editing prevents the composition from becoming too aware of itself. In fact, the 90-minute film only stumbles in its latter third, at which point its pacing begins to loop into itself and Antonio Manca, Giulia Moriggi, and Sironi’s script veers towards more traditional conflict to carry itself to the finish line. It can wear itself out past the hour mark, but as a meditation on how unremarkable human life can be and the peace that allows, Sole works because it doesn’t feel the need to provoke.
Next was another directorial debut in the form of Cunningham, Alla Kovgan’s first feature. She’s worked on a handful of shorts and features in the past, and she continues to edit here, tracking the career of choreographer Merce Cunningham. From the ‘40s his New York City dance company blossomed until tapering off in the ‘70s. He had relationships of varying degrees with dancers, composers, and costumers around the city, and in his words, “What we [had] in common [was] our art and our poverty.”
That’s line pretty much sums up the man’s work ethic, and Kovgan follows suit with intravenous visual patterns. It’s all in 3D, and while that sounds like a gimmick on paper, there’s an attention in both lighting and depth of field that complements the editing. For every diptych and triptych motif is a modern recreation of Cunningham’s work, sunlight vignetting through the windows. Kovgan can get a bit too cutesy in how she uses framing to place these recreations into a proscenium (virtually and literally), but it mostly works.
And that’s because it, for the most part, doesn’t overstay its welcome. Kovgan has a pretty keen hold on her visual arc in order to illustrate the growth of Cunningham’s work; the film gets less stylized as it goes on. It’s a look at the art, not so much the artists. This is varyingly successful in how one-note some of the pacing is at points, though; add in the bubble in which Cunningham treats its subjects, and the androgyny of his company’s work feels a bit less striking in comparison. Still, it left me feeling a bit empty, and that’s mostly on purpose.
That leaves my last movie of the day: Oliver Laxe’s Fire Will Come. Three years after Mimosas, he returns with a beautifully realized slow-burn that stumbles by even bothering to lean a narrative at points. The story is simple: Amador (Amador Arias) is a known arsonist who’s returning home to live with his mother, Benedicta (Benedicta Sánchez).
The film follows their day-to-day life in the Galician mountains, herding cattle as loggers kill off the surrounding forests. If it’s a relaxing day, Amador might head out to the local village for a beer, only to see others quietly ostracize him for his past sins. Just like how the title acts like a type of promise for audience members expecting something louder to happen, its opening scene preemptively shoves its narrative and characters into the foreground. When it’s time for them to matter, they mostly feel like scaffolding at best and dead weight at worst.
Fire Will Come is focused on experiential filmmaking, and it pays off in that respect. David Machado’s sound design, for one, is exquisite, and Laxe is a director who actually knows how to use it. Dead Slow Ahead cinematographer Mauro Herce shoots on 16mm and plays with film development to give sequences their own temperatures. It’s all so seamless that it makes Laxe and Santiago Fillol’s script feel overbearing even though it’s as thin as can be. It’s a shallow movie, yes. But when shallowness can feel so lived-in, that’s impressive.