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The European Union Film Festival 2014 - Part 2

Babett Jávor in 'Aglaya.'
Babett Jávor in 'Aglaya.'

The 17th Annual European Union Film Festival is at the Gene Siskel Film Center. It’s one of my favorite film events of the year, and I’ll give some quick capsule reviews on the films I manage to see throughout the fest.

Monica Zetterlund was a singularly arresting and fluid jazz singer from Sweden, but she’s a tough artist to delineate properly based on the feeble fanboy conventions that the director Per Fly has reduced her story to in his biographical film Waltz For Monica (Monica Z) (Sweden. 2013). She’s best known here for her collaborations with Bill Evans in the mid-sixties, her work with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra and bassist Niels-Henning Orsted-Pedersen in the mid-late seventies, and as a genuine advocate for expressing the jazz idiom in her native Swedish language, confident that the form would prevail over European tendencies for imitation over interpretation. It’s a good-looking film, thanks to cinematographer Eric Kress, but, apparently, there’s no Lifetime channel in Sweden to give director Fly any indication of how formulaic and undistinguished his script (in collaboration with Peter Birro) really is. Kjell Bergqvist does nice work in the thankless role of Monica’s doubtful and browbeating father, but I really must give proper credit to lead actress Edda Magnason, who not only invests the role with unflaggingly committed energy, in the good times and bad, but is an exceptionally expressive singer herself. Monica Zetterlund’s story is a good one, and deserves a much better film, but Magnason almost makes the trip worth making by herself.

‘Waltz For Monica’ screens on Saturday, March 8th at 7:00 p.m. and Tuesday, March 11th at 6:00 p.m.

The Hungarian director Krisztina Deák brings a fluid and empathetic grace to her colorful adaptation of “Why the Child Is Cooking in the Polenta,” Aglaja Veteranyi’s autobiographical novel that forms the basis for Deák’s wonderful film, Aglaya (Aglaja) (Hungary, 2012). Born to circus-performer parents, Aglaya’s childhood is simultaneously charmed and heartbreaking – the circus world, in all of its tawdry but proud invention, is a noble culture of dedicated survivors, but tragedy lurks in the seconds before the start of every performance. Aglaya’s mother is an aerial performer, shifting from trapeze artist to juggler hanging high above the crowd from her hair. Grisly injuries and death insinuate themselves into Aglaya’s youthful world view, and she sees herself as her mother’s guardian angel, keeping her airborne through love and strength of will. The family’s unconventional existence is persistently threatened – the family travels west to escape trouble in Romania, and, at one point, Aglaya and her half-sister are consigned to a boarding school, since its illegal for them to be unschooled in Germany at their age. The ‘real’ world is shown as far more oppressive and disheartening than even the hard world of the circuses, but mother and daughter are reunited, and the generational show-biz traditions are eventfully continued. The young Aglaya is played with convincing youthful gravity by Babett Jávor, and as an older teenager by the equally resourceful and understated Piroska Móga; they’re both excellent, as is Eszter Ónodi as Sabina, the mercurial high-flying mother striving to make a good life for all of them. It’s a terrific film by a director who has a good eye for deep compositions and more than a little familiarity with the work of the great Max Ophuls. Enormous amounts of story, character and happenstance are packed into the film’s less-than-two-hour running time, and there isn’t a slack moment in the entire film. This is almost certainly one of the best of the first weekend’s films, and I enthusiastically recommend it.

‘Aglaya’ screens on Sunday, March 9th at 5:00 p.m. and Thursday, March 13th at 8:00 p.m.