The Chicago European Union Film Festival kicked off at the Gene Siskel Film Center on March 3 and continues until the end of the month. My best bets for the festival’s third week are a beautiful, hand-drawn animated film from England and a surreal, dreamlike allegory from Portugal.
Based on a graphic novel by Raymond Briggs (best known for penning the animated holiday favorite The Snowman), Roger Mainwood’s Ethel & Ernest is a deceptively simple but deeply moving account of the lives of an ordinary married couple living in London from the late 1920s through the early 1970s. The title characters in Briggs’ book were explicitly based on his own parents and the way the film’s elliptical narrative quietly moves from one relatively uneventful vignette to another over the span of half a century has all the intimacy and emotion of flipping through a cherished family photo album. More than one critic has compared the film to the opening marriage montage of Pixar’s Up if that sequence had been sustained for the running time of an entire feature. The voice work of Jim Broadbent and Brenda Blethyn as the central couple is magnificent and cinephiles will especially appreciate that their first date involves taking in a screening of John Ford’s Hangman’s House.
João Pedro Rodrigues’ previous feature, the superb The Last Time I Saw Macao, received its local premiere at CEUFF in 2013 and this more ambitious follow-up is one of the highlights of the filmgoing year so far. Short on plot but long on spellbinding imagery, The Ornithologist concerns the misadventures of a young man named Fernando (Paul Hamy) who is kidnapped by Chinese tourists while on a bird-watching expedition in a dense forest near the Portuguese/Spanish border. After escaping, Fernando attempts to return to civilization but, like Ulysses and St. Anthony of Padua before him, finds himself continually sidelined by encounters with a menagerie of strange characters (including a deaf-mute shepherd named Jesus). The homoeroticism and mystical-jungle imagery may put one in the mind of Apichatpong Weerasethakul but the Catholic symbolism and meditation on solitude vs. companionship are distinctly Rodrigues’ own.
Ethel & Ernest screens on Friday, March 17 and Saturday, March 18. The Ornithologist screens on Saturday, March 18 and Thursday, March 23. For more info visit the Siskel Center’s website.
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