Sometimes film lovers have to work to locate worthwhile movies. But during the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival, they come to find you. For its 37th installment, the sometimes sprawling conglomeration of world cinema returns in trimmer shape. This year’s MSPIFF will unspool 150 feature films and 100 smaller works. Here is a look at noteworthy films from the fest's opening week. (Unless otherwise noted, all these films are showing at St. Anthony Main, Minneapolis.)
★★★ out of 4 stars
7:20 p.m. April 13; 6:50 p.m. April 17 at Metro State; 4:45 p.m. April 21 at Rochester (France)
The cutthroat world of big business is the frame for this timely drama, a sort of Frenchwoman’s “House of Cards.” Emmanuelle Devos plays an energy company executive quietly recruited by feminist lobbyists to become the first woman to head a major French corporation. Her silky, corrupt foe (chillingly played by Richard Berry) is not the type to be crossed. Amid the intrigue, the film’s subtext is the distinctly different way in which smart, talented women and the corporate boys’ club view and steer the world. As a hardworking woman who copes with the demands of an aged father, an emotional husband and a young daughter while winning over Chinese investors by eating, drinking and singing with them in pitch-perfect Mandarin, she’s a Wonder Woman in a chic business wardrobe. But what’s the value, and cost, of being No. 1? (110 min.)
10 p.m. April 13 (Britain)
Cynical Prof. Goodman (co-writer/co-director Andy Nyman) debunks paranormal happenings on his TV show and isn’t much of a believer in the supernatural. One night, he receives a package from a former mentor who wants to discuss three unsolved paranormal cases. As Goodman begins to investigate the cases, his darkest fears are awakened. Co-starring Martin Freeman (“Sherlock”), this adaptation of a popular British stage play has enough twisty tricks up its sleeve to generate plenty of good old-fashioned thrills. (97 min.)
JIM BRUNZELL III
4:50 p.m. April 13; 4:40 p.m. April 17; 1:50 p.m. April 20 (Georgia)
The remote village where the worldly, enigmatic Father Giorgi is assigned is deceptively quiet. A former filmmaker, he endears himself to parishioners by screening classic movies, one of which indirectly introduces the local siren, Lili. Much is made of her striking resemblance to Marilyn Monroe, and it is apparent that even the good father isn’t immune to her allure. That there are secrets and scandals in such a bucolic setting (even confession is taken on a scenic overlook) is no surprise, but the abrupt ending is as unsatisfying as a communion wafer. (89 min.)
9:50 p.m. April 13; 9:55 p.m. April 20; 7 p.m. April 23 at Uptown (Belgium)
The investigation of a series of gruesome deaths in Antwerp seems to have hit a dead end — until officers Vincke and Verstuyft discover a female survivor who may have clues to the serial killer’s whereabouts. Verstuyft falls for her, which could put his career and life in jeopardy, along with the rest of the force. Director Jan Verheyen’s 2009 film “Dossier K.” was terrific, but his latest disappoints, never finding the right pacing and tension to elevate this into a serious hard-boiled contender. (120 min.)
9:40 p.m. April 14; 9:55 p.m. April 19; 9:45 p.m. April 25 at Uptown (Luxembourg)
When mysterious loner Jens (Frederick Lau) shows up in a quiet country town looking for shelter and work, he finds a companion in single mom Lucy (Vicky Krieps, “Phantom Thread”). Things seem to be working out for Jens as he begins laboring on a farm and playing in the town band, helped by the mayor, Lucy’s father. Then this sleepy town unveils its own mysteries and quirks, leaving Jens fearing for his future. Deliberately slow-paced, flawlessly executed and a noodle-scratcher every passing minute, co-writer/director Govinda Van Maele’s surrealist masterpiece is an exhilarating and freaky delight. (107 min.)
9:55 p.m. April 14; 9 p.m. April 22 (Thailand)
A rather conventional setup — soap star puts a hit on her rich, abusive, impotent husband — has a couple of novel angles. One spouse is a follower of an odd Buddhist cult with a fraudulent leader, and the incompetent hit man is just trying to take care of his deaf, dying mother. After 80 minutes I almost thought a different movie about Thai tourism had been accidentally spliced in, but the blood-splattered climax will make you question everything that has come before it. (108 min.)
SIMON PETER GROEBNER
9:40 a.m. April 14; 2:10 p.m. April 18; 7:05 p.m. April 25 (Germany)
Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels built a moviemaking powerhouse that created more than 1,000 films from 1933 to 1945. In this scholarly documentary about the propaganda power of escapist cinema in Nazi Germany, director Rüdiger Suchsland uses a wealth of lavish footage to study how these films reflected and influenced their times and people. Themes of racial purity, Aryan beauty and an obsessive fixation on death were common threads. Widely familiar works such as “Triumph of the Will” share attention with rarely screened abominations such as “Jew Suss,” a feverish 1940 melodrama shown to concentration camp guards to justify their butchery. (105 min.)
1:50 p.m. April 14; 9:20 p.m. April 18; 7:10 p.m. April 25 (Palestine)
Not many fathers and sons can endure a daylong road trip without getting into each other’s face. When they’re driving across a divided Palestinian/Christian neighborhood of Nazareth, it’s even tougher. This lightweight family drama shows the sparky relationship between a son who has moved abroad and his homebody father as they pass out invitations to his daughter’s wedding. Mohammad and Saleh Bakri, a real father-and-son duo, bring humanizing shadings to the pair. Even if you’ve never been to Israel, we’ve all been on this route. (96 min.)
4 p.m. April 14 at Metro State; 9:50 p.m. April 26; 9:30 p.m. April 27 at Rochester (Venezuela)
“I killed my wife,” our strung-out, wide-eyed protagonist says in the first seconds. So we know where “El Inca” is headed. The beautifully shot biopic tells the ill-fated story of boxer Edwin “El Inca” Valero, who became an undefeated world champion before killing his wife and committing suicide in prison. As a young Valero, Alexander Leterni charms us along with the woman who becomes his wife, Joselin (Scarlett Jaimes). But the film never digs into its characters, revealing little about Joselin besides her love for expensive shoes. During that end we know is coming, director Ignacio Castillo Cottin does her wrong, flipping the perspective in a way that blames her, visually, for her own death. (128 min.)
10:45 a.m. April 14; 4:30 p.m. April 24 at Uptown (Luxembourg)
The title is French for “dam,” which figures literally and emotionally in this story of three generations of women. Ten-year-old Alba has been raised by her domineering grandmother (grande dame Isabelle Huppert). The estranged, unstable young mother Catherine (Lolita Chammah, Huppert’s real-life daughter) shows up in Alba’s backyard and wants to be back in her life. An awkward play date turns into a soft kidnapping. Huppert aside, it’s the sad, doe-eyed performance from the kid actress (Thémis Pauwels) that carries this maudlin tale. (112 min.)
Our New President
5 p.m. April 14; 9:15 p.m. April 18; 9:30 p.m. April 23 at Uptown (Russia/U.S.)
If the facts vs. fake news debate feels more hilarious than horrific, here’s the film for you. Maxim Pozdorovkin’s documentary examines Russia’s reverence for Donald Trump through a collection of propaganda-filled state news clips and weird user-generated online videos of accordion and guitar love songs for America’s 45th president. Put together sloppily, the film irritated me until I thought of it as a reflection of our increasingly post-factual world. Pozdorovkin simply shows that Russian newscasts are sinister, ridiculous and sensationally weird. Did you know that while viewing a Russian museum’s mummified corpse of a Siberian “princess,” Hillary Clinton was cursed with fainting fits and “signs of dementia”? Here’s the footage! While overlong, the film has passages of bravura absurdist misinformation that will hit your brain like a double shot of vodka. (77 min.)
Five Fingers for Marseilles
6:30 p.m. April 14 at Metro State; 9:50 p.m. April 19; 7 p.m. April 26 at Capri (South Africa)
The spirit of Sergio Leone lives on in South Africa. Director Michael Matthews’ modern action melodrama has the operatic look and mythic narrative feel of a classic spaghetti western. Marseilles is a down and dirty railroad stop where five childhood friends grew up fighting the oppressive white police, separating after an act of resistance goes fatally out of hand. Cut to today, as the men have moved on to prison, parish work or profitable wheeling and dealing. They reconnect as the end of apartheid triggers a bloody battle for control of their hometown, with old allies becoming enemies and vice versa. Wild West thrills on a weirdly similar African landscape. (120 min.)
2:10 p.m. April 15; 4:50 p.m. April 24 (Israel/Germany)
Shortly after Thomas, a German baker, meets Israeli businessman Oren in his pastry shop, the two begin having an affair. Then Thomas doesn’t hear from Oren for weeks. He learns the man died in a car crash, and travels to Jerusalem searching for answers. He begins working at a small cafe run by Oren’s widow, Anat — not telling her of the affair — and begins learning about their lives. Writer/director Ofir Raul Graizer’s impressive debut feature is a delicate and lovely confection about human connections and compassion. (104 min.)
11:30 a.m. April 15; 9:20 a.m. April 22; 2:10 p.m. April 26 (Hungary)
An MSPIFF favorite for more than four decades, Hungarian trailblazer Márta Mészáros brings viewers behind the 1950s Iron Curtain with her latest creation. The film starts like a quiet family drama but carefully morphs (via flashbacks) into a postwar nail-biter, powerfully illustrating oppression in the Eastern Bloc. When an obstinate octogenarian named Mária falls ill, her daughter, Olga, decamps for rural Hungary from her high-flying job in Vienna. As she administers end-of-life care, Olga starts to prod her mother, with increasing urgency, about her puzzle-like parentage. In addition to the stirring narrative, viewers are rewarded with radiant visuals and a truly gorgeous final scene with a breathtaking message about familial bonds.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
4:20 p.m. April 15; 7:15 p.m. April 24 (U.S.)
Directed by Oscar winner Morgan Neville (“20 Feet From Stardom”), this documentary traces the story of Fred Rogers, who launched public TV’s “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” in 1968 to give children positive life lessons. For four decades, he inspired hundreds of millions of children and families worldwide. While never digging too deep, Neville offers wonderful archival footage, some of it still relevant, and fascinating interviews with friends, families and co-workers who share anecdotes about the cardigan-wearing ordained minister. (94 min.)
4:30 p.m. April 16, 9:50 p.m. April 20, 9:20 p.m. April 22 (Slovakia/Ukraine)
Peter Bebjak’s film is virtually a calling card to break into U.S. action filmmaking, as Iceland’s Baltasar Kormakur (“2 Guns”) and Norway’s Morten Tyldum (“Passengers”) did before him. Slovakia’s 2017 Oscar submission, “The Line” nods to “The Godfather” (epic wedding, interrupted by violence) and “The Sopranos” (mama’s boy protagonist struggles to keep his organized crime business separate from his home life, and good luck with that). But Bebjak’s actors are so persuasive, his filmmaking so visually assured and his pacing so relentless that he’s probably already dodging calls from Liam Neeson. (108 min.)
A Skin So Soft
9:50 p.m. April 16, 5 p.m. April 18 (Canada)
This French-Canadian documentary about the world of body building consists mainly of long, lingering shots of shirtless, muscular men eating protein, gulping pills, taking selfies, rubbing on bronzing lotions, sleeping, posing, getting massages and, of course, lifting weights. You get a good picture of what it takes to build a body that looks like this. But not why. There’s almost no dialogue. You have no idea what’s going on in their heads. That gets a bit boring, no matter how perfect they look. (94 min.)
9:40 p.m. April 16; 9 p.m. April 19 at Metro State; 7:20 p.m. April 25 (Switzerland)
Tone is the issue in a comedy that wastes its sly premise: A down-on-his-luck teacher tries to make a fortune by hiring streakers to influence the results of soccer games he’s betting on. What should be a ribald, go-for-broke movie in the vein of “Kingpin” turns instead into a warmhearted, triumph-of-the-human-spirit mess. Which is to say it’s strictly for adults but feels like a children’s film that, for some reason, has full-frontal nudity. (98 min.)
9:55 p.m. April 17; 9 p.m. April 22 at Uptown; 4:35 p.m. April 26 (Finland)
A completely deranged musical-love-crime story filled with death and poker-faced Finnish comedy from director Teemu Nikki. Scary, 60-something small-town mechanic Veijo (Matti Onnismaa) operates a side business as a Dr. Kevorkian, shuffling the locals’ sick dogs, cats and guinea pigs off this mortal coil. He respects animals much more than he likes humans. So when a band of local punks starts bringing trouble his way, he pays back in kind and then some. How our weirdo antihero got to be this way and how good a romantic match he is for a nurse with a yen for autoerotic asphyxiation are details best discovered in the viewing. Profoundly shocking and shockingly funny. (85 min.)
Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?
9:30 p.m. April 17; 4:40 p.m. April 19; 5 p.m. April 26 at Capri (U.S.)
Travis Wilkerson’s study of his great-grandfather’s virulent racism is more an emotional personal essay and family portrait than a cinema verite documentary. In 1946, Dothan, Ala., grocery store owner S.E. Branch fired two shots at Bill Spann, a black customer. Spann was buried in an unmarked grave. Branch faced no legal consequences. Ominously narrating his cold case inquiry, Wilkerson reveals little new insight beyond convincing allegations that Branch was repulsively abusive inside his family as well. The polished black and white cinematography recalls Walker Evans’ iconic images of the Great Depression South, showing how little has changed since. Good at art, bad at rigorous reporting, this is chilling theater, not a true-life journalistic expose. (90 min.)
7 p.m. April 19; 4:45 p.m. April 21 at Uptown (U.S.)
Aurora Perrineau and Rachel Hendrix shine in Daniel Stine’s charming comic take on difficult friendships. They play long-separated ex-besties at a home for girls from troubled families. Brought together by a death, the good girl and the wild child trade taunts like tennis pros fighting a championship match. Largely shot around Grand Marais, Minn., the film adds tourist kitsch to keep the laughs coming, but not too much. Stine’s first feature is the work of someone testing his craft, but it’s so cleverly written and agreeable in its character-focused design that it’s Minnesota Nice incarnate. Only funnier. (97 min.)
Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival
When: April 12-28.
Where: St. Anthony Main, 115 SE. Main St., Mpls.; Capri Theater, 2027 W. Broadway, Mpls.; Uptown Theater, 2906 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.; Minneapolis Institute of Art, 2400 3rd Av. S., Mpls.; Metro State University Film Space, 400 Maria Av., St. Paul; Rochester Marcus 14, 4340 Maine Av. SE., Rochester.
Tickets: $14; discounts and packages available.
More information: mspfilm.org.