Cinema/Chicago News

Announcing Competitions for the 55th Chicago International Film Festival

Published: September 16, 2019  |  Filed under: Festival News

Corpus Christi

Here are the films chosen for the International, New Directors, and Documentary competitions for this year’s Chicago International Film Festival! Head to Screen Daily for the exclusive. The films in our competition programs compete for the Festival’s jury awards including the Gold Hugo for Best Film.

Many films will be making their North American and US premieres at the Festival. Several films being screened will represent their country at the Oscars as submissions for the Best International Feature Film including Corpus Christi (Poland), Instinct (The Netherlands), Our Mothers (Belgium), and Spider (Chile).

Individual film tickets for go on sale to the general public on Friday, September 27, but get the best deal on Competition films now with our Festival passes!

International Competition

This program of striking and masterfully crafted films from around the world showcases the best in cinema today. Telling essential, transportive stories, these titles compete for the Festival’s top prize, as well as awards for best director, best actor, and more.

Balloon Dir. Pema Tseden, China 

A harmonious life in the Tibetan grasslands is disrupted by two rambunctious young boys when they repurpose their father’s sole remaining condom as a balloon. This innocent theft leads to an unwanted pregnancy and community friction, further complicated from the collision of strict population control laws and Buddhist ideals of reincarnation. Equally comedic and tragic, Balloon is a visually sumptuous meditation on modernity, spirituality, and the preservation of family. Tibetan with subtitles. 102 min.

Clemency — Dir. Chinonye Chukwu, U.S.

Alfre Woodard delivers a searing performance as Bernadine Williams, a prison warden who dutifully carries out executions in a maximum-security prison. After a botched procedure, cracks begin to surface in her stoic demeanor, and her growing bond with a doomed inmate pushes Bernadine toward a powerful personal reckoning. In only her second feature and winner of the Sundance Grand Jury Prize, director Chinonye Chukwu crafts an astute character study of a strong-willed woman trying to salvage what remains of her soul. 112 min.

Corpus Christi Dir. Jan Komasa, Poland, France

Inspired by a true story, 20-year-old Daniel experiences a spiritual transformation while incarcerated in a youth detention center. He feels a calling to the priesthood, but his criminal record makes following his vocation impossible. On work-release, he is mistaken for an itinerant clergyman, a role he embraces with relish. Soon he is filling in at a small parish, but will his unconventional teachings help heal the community reeling from a terrible tragedy or tear them further apart? Polish with subtitles. 116 min.

The Fever

The Fever — Dir. Maya Da-Rin, Brazil, France, Germany

Justino, an indigenous Brazilian who works as a security guard in the Amazonian port city of Manaus, falls mysteriously ill just as his daughter prepares to leave for Brasilia to study medicine. As his fever continues unabated, Justino struggles to stay alert by day, while by night, a mysterious creature pursues him, pulling him back to his tribal lands. This uncanny, mesmerizing character study presents a finely drawn portrait of one man caught between two worlds. Portuguese, Tukano with subtitles. 98 min.


Fire Will Come Dir. Oliver Laxe, Spain, France, Luxembourg

Winner of a Cannes Jury Prize, this haunting slow-burn drama follows ex-con Amador returning home to live with his elderly mother after serving time in prison for arson. As an outbreak of fires encroaches on his community, he struggles to readjust to rural life under the watchful eyes of the villagers. Rendering the richly forested Galician countryside with a patient, painterly eye, the film’s mediative silences and smoldering embers presage an ominous future ahead. Galician with subtitles. 85 min

A Girl Missing Dir. Kôji Fukada, France, Japan 

Ichiko has been the in-home nurse to the elderly matriarch of the Oisho family for so long that she is almost a member of the clan, mentoring daughters Motoko and Saki as if they were her own. Everything changes after Saki is kidnapped by Ichiko’s nephew. While Ichiko decides to remain silent about the unpleasant truth, Motoko, overcome by jealousy, can’t help but meddle. Taut and compelling, this suspenseful drama is propelled by a growing sense of dread, as dark motives haltingly come to light. Japanese with subtitles. 111 min.

Gloria Mundi Dir. Robert Guédiguian, France, Italy

A working-class family in Marseille struggles to make ends meet in this tense, intergenerational drama, winner of the Best Actress Award at Venice (Ariane Ascaride). New parents Mathilda and Nicolas welcome infant daughter Gloria. But when Mathilda’s ex-con father re-enters the picture to meet his grandchild, his arrival—and a subsequent tragedy—creates upheaval for the clan. With a naturalistic, low-key style, this socially-minded family portrait deftly renders the precariousness of life on the margins. French with subtitles. 107 min.

Lara — Dir. Jan-Ole Gerster, Germany 

It’s Lara’s 60th birthday, and she should be celebrating. She just retired, and prodigy son Viktor is debuting his musical composition at a prestigious concert. Instead, she has reached a moment of personal crisis—years of heartless behavior has alienated her from everyone around her, including Viktor. As Lara becomes obsessed with making the evening a success, the action rises to a fever pitch. Anchored by a fierce performance, this high-anxiety character study is a marked turn from Gerster’s blithe comedic debut A Coffee in Berlin. German with subtitles. 98 min.

La Llorona Dir.  Jayro Bustamante, Guatemala, France

Both thrilling and deeply moving, this reimagining of the legend of La Llorona transplants the ghost tale of the Weeping Woman to a modern-day Guatemala in need of healing and justice. General Enrique Monteverde has just been acquitted on technicalities after being found guilty of atrocities committed during the Civil War years earlier. Following his release, the aging general and his family are haunted by the spectacle of angry protesters on the streets and the specter who has taken up residence inside their home. Spanish, Mayan-Caqchickel, Mayan-Ixil with subtitles. 96 min.

The Mayor of Rione Sanita Dir. Mario Martone, Italy

In this high-energy Neapolitan crime drama—a modern-day adaptation of celebrated playwright Eduardo De Filippo’s classic, Antonio Barracano is a “man of honor” who rules over the troubled neighborhood of Rione Sanità exerting influence and muscle. When Rafiluccio comes to the “mayor” requesting his blessing to kill his own father, Don Antonio must reconsider his stance on retribution and reconciliation. Self-consciously laying bare its theatrical origins, this riveting, wholly original mafia tale imagines a way out of the endless cycle of vengeance and violence. Neapolitan dialect, Italian with subtitles. 118 min.

Painted Bird Dir. Václav Marhoul, Czech Republic, Ukraine, Slovakia

This harrowing adaptation of Jerzy Kosinski’s controversial 1965 novel follows a young Polish boy forced to fend for himself as he traverses Eastern Europe during the brutal years of World War II. A decade-long labor of love for director Václav Marhoul, the film balances physical and psychological horror with breathtaking visuals reminiscent of Elem Klimov’s masterwork Come and See. Czech, German, Russian, Slavic Esperanto with subtitles. 169 min. 

Portrait of a Lady on Fire Dir. Céline Sciamma, France

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

In 18th century France, a reluctant bride and the artist commissioned to paint her portrait find themselves in the grips of an attraction too strong to resist. With her wedding fast approaching, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) initially refuses to sit for Marianne (Noemie Merlant), but the combative tension between the two women gives way to tentative trust and then unbridled fervor. Céline Sciamma’s startling, seductive period romance is brought to life with passion, nuance, and grace. French with subtitles. 121 min.

The Sleepwalkers Dir. Paula Hernández, Argentina

Spending the summer holidays with the extended family at her mother-in-law’s cottage has Luisa on edge. Long-simmering tensions with her husband are surfacing and her teenage daughter Ana, who has become interested in boys, is sleepwalking naked at night. Something isn’t right. Permeated by a mysterious and disquieting mood, this beautifully photographed slow-burning film patiently builds to an explosive finale. Spanish with subtitles. 107 min.

Sorry We Missed You Dir. Ken Loach, U.K., France, Belgium

The venerable craftsman of penetrating working-class dramas trains his lens on the gig economy in this emotional tale of a blue-collar household struggling to make ends meet in the north of England. Family man Ricky believes that, with his nose-to-the-grind work ethic, becoming a self-employed delivery driver will turn his clan’s financial fortunes around. Simmering with tension, this everyman tale exposes the true cost of so-called entrepreneurial opportunity in a system rigged against the little guy. A timely and topical tale for our times. 100 min.

Spider Dir. Andrés Wood, Chile

In this gripping thriller, three young friends join a far-right terrorist group intent on bringing down Allende’s Communist government. Almost 50 years after the violent coup, Justo and Ines, now husband and wife, enjoy a comfortable life as part of the country’s elite—until Gerardo’s unexpected return. Toggling seamlessly between 1970s and present-day Santiago, director Andrés Wood (Violeta Went to Heaven) spins a provocative tale of power, deception, and desire. Spanish with subtitles. 105 min.

Vitalina Varela Dir. Pedro Costa, Portugal

After waiting 25 years for a plane ticket to join her husband in Lisbon, Cape Verde native Vitalina finally arrives in Lisbon upon the news of her spouse’s death, and she has just missed his funeral. Winner of the Locarno Film Festival, this quietly observed masterwork follows Vitalina as she comes to terms with the circumstances of her husband’s life and her own grief. Arresting mise-en-scène marked by dramatic chiaroscuro lighting reveals the dignity and pain of immigrants living on the margins of Portuguese society. Cape Verdean Creole, Portuguese with subtitles. 124 min.

New Directors Competition 

Screening for the first time in the U.S., these bold works from emerging talents are selected to represent the most exciting new voices in cinema. Prizes awarded in the category include the Gold and Silver Hugo as well as the Roger Ebert Award.

Adam — Dir. Maryam Touzani Morocco, France, Belgium

Casablanca is the backdrop for this richly nuanced drama celebrating sisterhood among women.  Pregnant and homeless runaway Samia arrives on the doorstep of Abla, a tightly-wound widow raising a young daughter and running a small bakery. Against her better judgment, Abla offers Samia refuge. As the women work side-by-side, they forge a powerful connection and slowly begin to find ways to confront the present and come to terms with the past. Arabic with subtitles. 98 min.

Bombay Rose

Bombay Rose — Dir. Gitanjali Rao, India, U.K., France, Qatar

Rendered in deep, sumptuous hues, Bombay Rose presents interlacing tales of love and loss both past and present. Thoughtful beauty Kamala scrapes together a living to keep sister Tara in school. Salim, a handsome Kashmir refugee, falls for Kamala, and is willing to risk it all for her. Meanwhile, Tara takes lessons from aging film star Shirley, who aches for a bygone life of splendor and desire. This exquisite, hand-painted animation is by turns a celebration of Bollywood fantasy and a gritty, heartfelt portrait of the city from which it takes its name. Hindi with subtitles. 93 min.

The Components of Love — Dir. Miriam Bliese, Germany

Love is ephemeral and relationships complex in this fragmented chronicle of a romance between two young adults in present-day Berlin. When Sophie meets Georg, she’s pregnant and recently abandoned by the child’s father. They quickly fall for one another, Georg raising her son as his own, though the ties that bind their patchwork family ultimately prove tenuous. With a sharp eye and steady hand, Bliese delves into the mysteries of attraction and the waning of desire. German with subtitles. 97 min.

Instinct — Dir. Halina Reijn, The Netherlands 

Charged with assessing inmates’ eligibility for parole, psychologist Nicoline (Game of Thrones star Carice van Houten) becomes locked in a battle of wills with Idris (Aladdin’s Marwen Kenzari), a charismatic and seductive serial rapist in this erotically-charged thriller. Though he’s convinced everyone he is a reformed man, Nicoline suspects that Idris remains dangerous, and with each session between them, power dynamics shift—just who is manipulating whom? The answers remain elusive in this powerfully immediate yet nuanced study of gender politics and the complex nature of desire. Dutch with subtitles. 98 min.

Just 6.5  Dir. Saeed Roustayi, Iran

In this fast-paced cat-and-mouse thriller, detective Samad (Payman Maadi, A Separation) takes on a powerful drug kingpin in a fierce battle to stem the rising tide of drug addiction in Iran. Opening with a high-octane roundup of suspects and addicts that culminates in a punishing finale, the film tracks Samad as he tries to bring in top dealer Nasser. But landing him in jail is just the beginning. A box-office hit in its homeland, Just 6.5 pushes the crime genre to extremes, Iranian style. Farsi with subtitles. 135min.

Litigante Dir. Franco Lolli, Colombia, France

Director Franco Lolli (Gente de Bien) returns to the Festival with this personal and powerful portrait of one woman’s trials and triumphs. Hard-working attorney and single mother Silvia is already stretched thin caring for her domineering cancer-stricken mother. When she becomes unexpectedly entangled in a corruption scandal at work, Silvia must forge her own path to peace and reconciliation. This emotionally engrossing drama features an extraordinary breakout performance by Carolina Sanín. Spanish with subtitles. 95 min.

Maternal Dir. Maura Delpero, Italy, Argentina

The lives of three young women intersect in unexpected ways in this sensitive, insightful drama about motherhood and desire. Novitiate Sister Paola, preparing to take her final vows, works at a Buenos Aires shelter for teen mothers. Rebellious young mother Lu desires only freedom and escape, while Fatima, pregnant with her second child, finds solace within the walls of the institution. When Paola forms a deep attachment to an abandoned infant, she must confront troubling doubts about her true vocation. Spanish with subtitles. 91 min.

Oleg Dir. Juris Kursietis, Latvia, Lithuania, Belgium, France


A trained butcher deep in debt, Oleg has left Latvia to take a job at a slaughterhouse in Belgium. When he is fired over false accusations, charismatic Polish conman Andrzej comes to his aid. But his offers of housing and paid work are just a set-up for Oleg’s slide into grievous exploitation. Anchored by strong performances and told with cinematic flair, this gripping film offers a timely look at the reality of life in the shadows. English, Russian, Polish, Latvian, French, Flemish with subtitles. 108 min.

The Orphanage Dir. Shahrbanoo Sadat, Germany, France, Luxembourg, Afghanistan

Fifteen-year-old Kabuli street kid Qodrat gets by in1980s Soviet-controlled Afghanistan selling movie tickets on the black market. But his illegal hustle sparks the attention of the police, who remand him to a public orphanage. Alternating between a harsh outside reality ruled by bullies and an encroaching Muhijadeen and Quodra’s rich inner world of Bollywood fantasy, this poignant coming-of-age drama is a sequel to Sadat’s 2016 Festival favorite Wolf and Sheep. Dari, Russian, Hindi–Urdu with subtitles. 90 min.

Our Mothers — Dir. César Díaz, Guatemala, Belgium, France

Forensic anthropologist Ernesto works tirelessly to identify the remains of the victims of the Guatemalan Civil War. When he meets an old Mayan woman who might have information that could lead him to his father’s remains, Ernesto embarks on a crusade that promises to bring solace to the wounded community and help him uncover his own roots. This subtle yet powerful social drama, winner of the best first feature award at Cannes, gives layered expression to the legacy of profound national trauma. Spanish with subtitles. 77 min.

Sheena667 Dir. Grigory Dobrygin, Russia

A breath of fresh air from the frozen east, this charming, absurdist tale—reminiscent of the work of Jim Jarmusch—explores love and obsession in the Internet age. A provincial Russian mechanic needs a new truck to keep his business afloat. Searching online for the right vehicle, he stumbles across the website of an American “camgirl” and is immediately smitten. As naive Vadim cluelessly pursues the object of his desire, he fails to notice his life is crashing down all around him. Russian with subtitles. 97 min.

Sole — Dir. Carlo Sironi, Italy, Poland

In this tender, melancholy tale of desperation and desire, pregnant Polish teen Lena has traveled to Italy to sell her baby to racketeer Fabio. Dodging anti-surrogacy regulations, Fabio pays nephew Ermanno to watch over Lena while posing as the child’s father, who will “ask” relatives to adopt the newborn. But Ermanno begins to shed his tough veneer as he develops feelings for the girl and child. Beautifully rendered in cool shades of blue, this accidental love story tracks two lost souls facing impossible choices. Italian, Polish with subtitles. 100 min.

A Thief’s Daughter — Dir. Belén Funes, Spain

Living in public housing with an infant in tow, Sara hustles to string together enough part-time work to move out; the 22-year-old is determined to make a better life for herself and rescue her kid brother from a foster home. Just as things start looking up, her ex-con father returns, threatening to upend her hard-won victories. One of the year’s most powerfully emotional films, this is a riveting portrait of a sensitive but strong young woman fighting against a world determined to keep her down. Spanish with subtitles. 102 min.

Wild Sparrow — Dir. Shih Li, Taiwan

The impending closure of his school forces 12-year-old Han to leave behind his grandmother’s idyllic mountain home and relocate to Taipei to live with his estranged mother, Li. But life in the city is fraught with adversity—especially for Li, who, after being spurned by her lover, takes a series of degrading nightclub jobs to support herself and her son. Deeply spiritual yet grounded in unflinching realism, this exquisitely photographed drama explores the human capacity for compassion and love. Taiwanese, Mandarin with subtitles. 94 min.

Documentary Competition 

From the topical and timeless to the political and provocative, these real-life stories bring you up-close and personal with the people and issues that define who we are, where we come from, and where we’re going. Documentary Competition titles, making their U.S. premieres in Chicago, compete for the Festival’s top nonfiction prize.

The Cordillera of Dreams   Dir. Patricio Guzmán, Chile, France

In this stunning follow-up to his political reveries Nostalgia for the Light and The Pearl Button, venerable filmmaker Patricio Guzmán once again focuses on Chile’s topography as a metaphor for its past and present. Here, he spotlights the looming Andean mountain range that acts as both protector and dispassionate observer of the country’s traumas. Winner of Cannes’ top documentary prize, the film is a potent and poetic inquiry into national memory. Spanish with subtitles. 85 min.

Digitalkarma Dir. Francesca Scalisi, Mark Olexa, Switzerland

Rupa is a bright-eyed Bangladeshi teen who dreams of having her own career. Once she joins a local tech-training program and enjoys the liberties of a new bicycle and a cell phone, her professional goals appear within reach—until an unexpected event throws her off-balance. Following Rupa’s journey over four years, Digitalkarma offers an intimate, empathetic portrait of a young woman in rural South Asia trapped between present-day aspirations and the traditions of the past. Bengali, English with subtitles. 78 min.

Forman vs. Forman

Forman vs. Forman Dir. Jakub Hejna, Helena Třeštíková, Czech Republic, France

“You are never free—there’s always some kind of pressure,” says Milos Forman in this illuminating doc about the two-time Oscar®-winner (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Amadeus). Through a treasure trove of archival footage, we see Forman overcoming the oppressive systems—from Nazism and Communism to Hollywood—that shaped his cinema of resistance. A candid tribute, Forman vs. Forman shows an artist constantly in the throes of creative and political struggle. Czech, English with subtitles. 78 min.

The Hypnotist — Dir. Arthur Franck, Finland

This transfixing Cold-War docu-thriller tells the stranger-than-fiction tale of Olavi Hakasalo, a.k.a Olliver Hawk, Finland’s most famous hypnotist, who might—or might not—have been a key political operative for the nation’s ruling powers. A wild ride, full of subtle contemporary echoes about the risks of populism and public manipulation, The Hypnotist charts both the rise and fall of a mysterious man and the murkiness of truth. Finnish with subtitles. 72 min.

Love Child Dir. Eva Mulvad, Denmark

Sahand, Leila, and their 4-year-old son Mani are on the run. The Iranian lovers carried on a clandestine affair for years, and Mani was born out of wedlock. Now they’re fleeing their homeland–where they could face the death penalty for their indiscretions–and seeking asylum abroad. Filmed over more than six years, Love Child tells an extraordinary story, full of emotional twists and turns, about a family dedicated to each other, but straining under the pressures of bureaucracy and the world’s nationalist tilt. Farsi, Azerbaijani, Turkish, English with subtitles. 112 min.

MOTHER Dir. Kristof Bilsen, Belgium, The Netherlands

This touching portrait follows two mothers whose stories converge in an eldercare facility in Northern Thailand—Pomm, a Thai woman devoted to her patients but heartbroken that she’s not around for her own children, and Maya, a Swiss grandmother suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s. Profoundly intimate and complex, MOTHER presents a deeply layered account of caring for those you love, and those you grow to love. Thai, Swiss-German, English with subtitles. 82 min.

My Father and MeDir. Nick Broomfield, U.K.

For decades, foremost documentarian Nick Broomfield (Kurt & Courtney) has often implicated himself in his filmmaking with honesty and candor. Yet never has he made a movie more distinctly personal than this complex, moving film about his relationship with his father Maurice, an accomplished photographer of industrial post-WWII England. Both memoir and tribute, My Father and Me is an intimate story of one family that also takes an expansive, philosophical look at the 20th Century. 96 min.

Ringside Dir. André Hörmann, U.S., Germany


Call it Hoop Dreams for boxing. Like its famous predecessor, Ringside isn’t just a story about two aspiring young Chicago black athletes as they experience the successes and setbacks of life and sport over several years. It also delivers an emotional gut-punch as it chronicles the travails of Destyne Butler Jr. and Kenneth Sims Jr., as well as the hardworking fathers who stand by their side through every victory and defeat. 96 min.

Waiting for the Carnival Dir. Marcelo Gomes, Brazil

Welcome to Toritama, a.k.a. “The Capital of Jeans.” With insight and good humor, Marcelo Gomes returns to the rural Brazilian city of his youth, which now produces 20 million pairs of blue jeans annually. Across garages and backyards, the town’s self-employed inhabitants toil over denim and zippers around the clock every day—except for the annual carnival season when they try to take a well-earned break. But in this thoughtful and provocative film, Gomes wonders: Are they shrewd entrepreneurs or slaves to capitalism? Portuguese with subtitles. 86 min.


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