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5 Films You Must See At This Year's Chicago Latino Film Festival

By Joel Wicklund in Arts & Entertainment on Apr 19, 2017 3:20PM

"Such Is Life in the Tropics" (Photo courtesy of Chicago Latino Film Festival)

While challenging works and uncompromising art films are regularly included, the Chicago Latino Film Festival always seems to prioritize entertainment value for its attendees. Thrillers, comedies and genre films have been well represented in recent years and that tradition continues with the festival's 33rd edition, which kicks off Thursday night and runs through May 4 at AMC's River East 21 theaters.

Compared to the more weighty air the Chicago International Film Festival has cultivated, CLFF feels like a sunnier, slightly more accessible little brother on the festival calendar. That said, there is no shortage of serious subject matter addressed in this year's schedule. Our pre-fest samplings even included a housing crisis musical!

With only a small percentage of the 71 features and 40 short films on the docket previewed, we won't claim the following movies are the "best of the fest," but here are five selections we can recommend without hesitation.

At Your Doorstep (Cerca de tu Casa)
April 28 & May 1
The mass evictions that occurred following Spain's 2007 housing market collapse form the unlikely backdrop for this Spanish musical. Singer-songwriter Sílvia Pérez Cruz's songs aren't especially hummable, but they convey the desperation of the characters and Cruz turns in a solid performance in her first dramatic role. Her fellow cast members are even better, especially Ivan Massagué as the volatile husband of her character. Director Eduard Cortés visually impactful feature further proves musicals can tackle heavy topics as well as any other genre.

Between Sea and Land (La Ciénaga: Entre el Mar y la Tierra)
April 29 & May 2
Actors playing characters with afflictions are a cliché of so-called prestige films, but Manolo Cruz's totally convincing, heartbreaking performance as a young man with severe dystonia defies cynical dismissals. He is simply brilliant, as is Vicky Hernandez as the bedridden man's mother, who cares for him with unshakable devotion in spite of their poverty and the physical hardships of the shack they live in on the Caribbean coast. Cruz also wrote the screenplay of this Sundance award-winner, and his deeply moving tale also illuminates how sexual frustration can plague the disabled through the presence of a well-meaning, attractive neighbor who unintentionally adds to his character's burden. If you want a film to slap you in the face and make you realize your life isn't all that bad, this devastating Colombian drama should do the trick.

The Cliff (Acantilado)
April 21, 23 & 25
In this slow-burning Spanish thriller, a well-to-do attorney is pulled into a crime investigation following the mass suicide of members of a cult to which his sister belonged. A subtle flashback structure helps build the intensity in a dark blend of procedural drama and macabre mystery reminiscent of Zodiac and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo—it's not quite as good as the former but much better than the latter (and yes, both the Swedish and American versions).

The Night of the Wild Boar (La Noche del Jabalí)
April 28, April 30 & May 1
This brief (74 minutes) Chilean feature is overwrought, but entertainingly so, and also impressively stylish. A romance writer travels to the remote rural town that was the setting of her deceased lover's reality-based horror novels. Once there, she is hounded by an unstable cop who suspects her late partner was responsible for seven deaths in the community. The forests of the Chilean town of Neltume provide heavy atmosphere and the area's history as a rebel outpost during the Pinochet dictatorship plays into the backstory, but mainly this is an enjoyably twisted little cat-and-mouse game with a sensationally odd final shot.

Such Is Life in the Tropics (Sin Muertos No Hay Carnaval)
April 27 & 29
A hunting accident begins to unravel layers of corruption in this powerful political drama from Ecuador. Though it's an average-length film, it feels thematically epic in its portrait of a ruthless upper class wreaking havoc on the lives of the poor. There is a revolutionary fervor underneath a smart and cynical surface, but director and co-writer Sebastián Cordero doesn't let his message erase the shades of gray: sympathetic characters are on both sides of the economic divide. It's a terrific film all around, but I have a quibble: Why pick such a tame English language title when the more accurate translation (Without the Dead There Is No Carnival) is so much cooler?

The complete Chicago Latino Film Festival schedule is available on the festival’s website.