CIFF Reviews: Sole, Once Upon a River, Jojo Rabbit, and La Llorona

My second dispatched from the 55th annual Chicago International Film Festivals finds a lot of coming-of-age and encompasses multiple countries from Italy to America to Germany and Guatemala: ranging from in subject matter from teen pregnancy to Nazism to ghost stories. My reviews for Sole, Once Upon a River, Jojo Rabbit, and La Llorona follow below.

Dead ends don’t just happen down the road, sometimes they’re put up at birth. In Carlo Sironi’s feature debut Sole two people come together who’ve known the street name of that dead end for decades. They’re the detached Ermanno (Claudio Segaluscio) and equally as dispirited Lena (Sandra Drzymalska). From Poland, and three weeks from giving birth, Lena has arrived in Italy to sell her unborn baby to a sterile couple Fabio (Bruno Buzzi) and Bianca (Barbara Ronchi). To facilitate the exchange, Fabio enlists his nephew Ermanno to look after the pregnant Lena. Each will be paid a tidy fee for their work. Seems simple. 

However, the two are ever changing. Water marks one of Sole’s significant visual cues. In fact, Ermanno’s simple apartment, where Lena stays, is surrounded by its image. Rarely stagnant, water carries a cyclical effect, forever morphing yet remaining the same. Both Ermanno and Lena go under a change over the course of 90 minutes. The young man, who’s resigned himself to gambling and petty crime, begins to think of others. His expressionless glazed face becomes enraptured with the thought of a family, of holding a steady job, of his love for the woman he’s watching and the baby she carries. On the other hand, Lena also dissolves. She comes to care for a child she proclaimed so willing to give up. Throughout, Segaluscio and Drzymalska provide an incredible emotional tango of suppression, while tussling with their downtrodden characters. 

Ermanno and Lena’s interwoven evolution anchors each successive avoidance of their true feelings, giving the first act a tension lacking in the second and third. Nevertheless, Sironi’s paired character study leaves one imaginative of the life the two could lead if they only had the ability to seize it.   

Rivers in storytelling: especially fairy tales, have always served as magical avenues, where odd people and creatures unexplainably appear. While odd creatures don’t exist in Chicago filmmaker Haroula Rose’s feature debut Once Upon a River, a plethora of characters do appear to Margo Crane (Kenadi DelaCerna) in a coming-of-age period piece that offers magical moments during troubling events. 

Opening in Michigan 1977, Margo narrates over images of her scouring the woods with a rifle and a copy of Annie Oakley. She’s a hunter, trained by her single father (Tatanka Means) who’s still reeling from her mother abandoning the two a year prior. In this town, her father’s half-brother Cal Murray (Coburn Goss) controls everything and he’s taken an uneasy shining to his 15-year old niece. Through grooming, much of which is done in plain view of his prejudiced sons Junior (Arie Thompson) and Billy (Sam Straley)—he dangles the promise of hunting with him to gain her trust, ultimately luring her into a shed to rape her. Later, Margo tries to shoot her uncle but in the melee her father is killed by Billy, causing her to flee in a boat down river to search for her mother. 

Over the span of the film’s 92 minutes, Rose charts a path where Margo discovers a litany of characters. There’s Will (Ajuawak Kapashesit), a traveling loner Margo falls for. She also enlists the help of Paul (Evan Linder) and Brian (Dominic Bogart), poachers who buy deer meat from her. And later, she meets Smoke (John Ashton): an aging dying musician who cares for her as a daughter and his friend Fishbone (Kenn E. Hedd). The milieu acts as the background to Margo finding her mother (Lindsay Pulsipher), her grappling with an unplanned pregnancy, and instances of racism: she’s partly Native American.   

Rose provides a trimmed narrative. And though there are instances of unbelievable coincidences, maybe adding a hint of magical realism, Once Upon a River—with a tremendous performance from Kenadi DelaCerna as Margo—enchants us in this simple but evocative coming-of-age tale. 

Hitler is boring. Well, if it’s Taika Waititi’s Adolph Hitler. His Jojo Rabbit—a coming-of-age story set during the tail end of World War II—sees Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis): a young fanatic of the Hitler Youth Core, question his allegiances even as the fuhrer accompanies him as an imaginary friend in a cheeky but all too safe narrative.

Waititi cleverly paints the normalization of Nazism and Antisemitism, first through the opening sequence playing a German dubbed version of the Beatles hit “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” comparing the wave of fascism to Beatlemania, then by displaying the myriad of ways Jojo attempts to prove the doctrine bandied by the Third Reich. All the while, the boy’s ole’ pal Adolph serves as his imaginary life coach and guru. Even so, the first act labors. Waititi’s Hitler isn’t all that interesting. Certainly he’s been sanitized because he exists in the mind of a child, but there’s only so much wink wink baiting that can happen before the expedition makes one weary of its odd safeness. Especially because each time Hitler appears, he snatches us off the narrative’s trail of Jojo’s personal journey.

Jojo Rabbit rarely remains on path, speeding ahead, until the film expresses his relationship with his subversive mother Rosei (Scarlett Johansson) and reveals the existence of Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie). Rosei, a single mother, deeply cares for Jojo but also realizes the depths of his fanaticism. Her independence, in thought and action, and her kindly courage carries the first act of the film. That bravery supports Elsa’s sheltering, a young Jewish girl hiding in the attic of Jojo’s home. The young boy discovers her one day and spends much of the second act questioning her. He’s heard many theories detailing how dangerous and vile Jewish people supposedly are, yet now he’s confronted with a real person. Waititi bases many of Jojo’s questions to her on actual Nazi propangada, such as prodding if she hangs from ceilings. 

While Roman Griffin Davis offers a tremendous performance as the psychologically lost but lonely boy, Thomasin McKenzie as Elsa is just as spectacular. The film’s firmest grounding sits with its women characters, like the affectionate but valiant Rosei. Elsa serves as another brilliant example. In one scene, Jojo brags about his Aryian blood making him the superior master race, to which Elsa sharply defenses by cupping his mouth and pinning him. She asks who’s the stronger, in a sure handed test of will. McKenzie, after her head-turning performance in Debra Granik’s spectacular Leave No Trace delivers another immaculate reason to believe she’s fated for stardom. 

Waititi also furnishes Jojo Rabbit with a number of intriguing supporting characters like Finkel (Alfie Allen), the assistant to the Youth Commander Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell, returning for your racist pleasures). The two possess an intriguing relationship that Waititi delicately develops, yet seems a scene short to fully flush out. Still, Rockwell covers any shortcomings with his usual top-tier work. Rebel Wilson as Fraulein Rahm finds herself with less to do than her cameo moments would seem to command, while Stephen Merchant as a gestapo officer quietly terrorizes in one of the more suspenseful instances of the comedy. However, Archie Yates as Yorki: Jojo’s jolly and enthusiastic best friend—charms in every second he’s on the screen. 

Still, Jojo Rabbit is at its strongest when it serves as a Moonrise Kingdom flick—following Jojo and Elsa from their meeting to the waning days of the war. Their burgeoning relationship, and the young boy’s introspection of his anti-simentic thoughts in the face of a person he comes to care for marks a trying emotional punch, especially as the film peaks in an outrageous but deftly executed battle scene. Waititi easily balances grim and heavy material to make a lighter than thought comedy, even if his Hitler doesn’t add much to the equation other than a couple punchlines. Jojo Rabbit is deeply flawed, the narrative sags too often through its 108 minutes, but in its final forty-five Waititi discovers a deeply endearing relationship that makes the whole journey worth it.  

A common Latin American folktale, La Llorona (The Weeping Woman) describes a woman who drowned her children only for her ghost to wander the earth looking for their bodies and bringing despair to anyone near her. That folklore is repurposed toward political ends in Jayro Bustamante’s somber but haunting picture detailing the genocide of indigenous people in his native Guatemala, La Llorona

His film centers Don Enrique (Julio Diaz) a former general now on trial for genocide and rape while hunting for guerrilla forces. Enrique occupies a lavish mansion with his wife Carmen (Margarita Kenéfic), daughter Natalia (Sabrina De La Hoz), and granddaughter Sara (Ayla-Elea Hurtado). The Spanish-language picture watches as the superstitious and fearful indigenous servants flee from Enrique and his family. The only one who remains is Valeriana (María Telón). That is, until the mysterious Alma (María Mercedes Coroy) appears on their doorstep to help around the home. 

Bustamante’s La Llorona has real-world roots, grounding itself in the historical events of the Silent Holocaust of Mayan civilians in Guatemala during the early 90’s. Those events, like any instance of genocide, predicated itself upon the normalizing of violence and disappearance, the willful ignorance to the ends of survival by the populace, and the moral compartmentalizing of brutal leaders. Enrique’s family fall to the same trappings. There’s Natalie, whose leftist husband recently disappeared yet she shows little urge to find the truth. Carmen, Enrique’s wife, also relies on self-perpetuated lies; claiming the women accusing her husband of rape are whores. Still, no matter what repression they devolve into the ghosts of the slain still surround them.   

La Llorona culminates with the visceral haunting and reckoning brought on by these ghosts, which in turn, actualizes the legacy left behind. And while Carmen exasperatedly exclaims that the country needs to move on, Bustamante thoughtfully takes the phantasmagorical to inform the myriad of ways we shouldn’t just forget, for fear of letting down the victims who came before.      

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