My fourth day of the Chicago International Film Festival featured perhaps both the best and worst of what I’ll see here. At 3:45 p.m. was a press and industry screening of “The Confession,” the follow-up to Georgian director Zaza Urushadze’s Oscar-nominated “Tangerines” from a few years back. “The Confession” follows a preacher, Giorgi (Dimitri Tatishvili, “Scary Mother”) and his assistant, Valiko (first-timer Joseph Khvedelidze) as they fill in at a church in a town after the local preacher dies. They bring with them American DVDs and a projector to show in the church, believing that if the townspeople come for the movies, they’ll come to church.
The film series begins with “Some Like It Hot,” the 1959 Billy Wilder classic with Marilyn Monroe, leading a number of the villagers to note that one of the women in the village, a music teacher named Lili (Sophia Sebiskveradze, “My Dad’s Girlfriend”), looks an awful lot like the blonde bombshell herself. And sure enough, though she is far from identical, Lili’s styled platinum blonde hair makes a compelling case. Lili and Father Giorgi become friendly, with the preacher encouraging her to come to a confession, where she notes not her sins but rather her place in the village: since her husband’s death, many men lust after her, but she’s not interested in loveless sex.
At about 89 minutes, the film moves fairly quickly, aided by an occasionally arresting shot. One of note happens a few times: Father Giorgi, out for an evening walk, finds a solitary Lili, illuminated and alluring, sitting aside a building in a large-scale shot. And there are some occasional laughs, too: One woman, concerned that her dead husband will know she cheated, asks Father Giorgi if spirits know everything. When he replies yes, she asks, “In detail?”
But when the film tries to actually say something, or make an argument, as Urushadze did with success in his previous film, “The Confession” sputters. The dichotomy between modern culture and religious traditions is present, but not dissected in any meaningful way. Father Giorgi went to film school, explaining his love of the medium, and dropped out to become a clergyman. So what? Father Giorgi feels torn between his lust and love for Lili and his promise to remain celibate. So what?
The cardinal sin, though, is the film’s finale. It would be unfair to ruin the “surprise,” but it should suffice that the film’s inclusion of a (false) female accusation of sexual assault is not only eerily repulsive given the recent scandal out of Hollywood involving producer Harvey Weinstein, but it also feeds a meninist nightmare to the point of propagandizing a vile hatred of women. I’m not one to dislike a movie for the ideas it depicts or proselytizes — hell, I’m a Jew who admires the craft of “The Triumph of the Will” — but Urushadze’s inclusion of the plot point, whether it was to articulate an idea or simply a method of moving the story forward, feels rather putrid.
“Lady Bird,” the solo directing debut of writer and actor Greta Gerwig (“20th Century Women”), is a fictionalized autiobiography. In other words, little to nothing that happens to high school senior Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (an excellent Saoirse Ronan, “Brooklyn”) actually happened to Gerwig, but the film captures a spirit. Lady Bird, who gave herself the name, is an academically floundering and rebellious senior at a Catholic girls’ school in Sacramento. She dreams of going to college at an elite school on the east coast, but her family can hardly afford it (and her grades barely merit it). Roughly spanning the school year, we witness Lady Bird’s first loves, her experience in theater, parties, prom. Gerwig’s screenplay brilliantly swings between the heights of comedic achievement and the emotional caverns of anxiety, stress, growing up and everything else.
Films about adolescence often live or die by their casts. Fortunately, the actors behind “Lady Bird” are some of the most accomplished of their generation. Chicago theater legends Tracy Letts (“Wiener-Dog”) and Laurie Metcalf, who just won a Tony for her performance in “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” are pitch-perfect as the parents of the household, navigating the struggles of raising a rebellious, sometimes insolent, daughter and grappling with their financial woes, and their Steppenwolf partner, Lois Smith (“The Nice Guys”), is authoritative and superbly funny as Lady Bird’s Catholic School’s mother superior. Lucas Hedges (“Manchester by the Sea”) and Timothée Chalamet (“Interstellar”), who play two of Lady Bird’s love interests, nail the sexual anxiety and performative coolness of youthful rebellion, respectively, better than any of their contemporaries. Beanie Feldstein (“Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising”) is so funny as Lady Bird’s friend Julie that I actually snorted in the theater.
Gerwig, who has been the creative force behind a number of great films that explore the lives of rambunctious young women, has arrived as a director. She can keep her distance, letting characters live in the scene without a forceful intrusion of the camera. But she can also be tender, nailing dramatic moments with just as much force and ease as the comedy. Granted, a film that takes place in and is something of an ode to the writer-director’s hometown (in this case, Sacramento, Calif.) can often be good precisely because the filmmaker has spent so much time thinking about how to shoot the city. But “Lady Bird” is no standard debut and audiences should already anticipate what she has to offer next.