Like Charlie Chaplin’s famous prospector, the Milwaukee Film Festival knows there’s gold to be found due north.
By adding the historic Rivoli Theatre in downtown Cedarburg to its roster of sites, the annual festival, which opens its 11th edition Thursday, is making an unprecedented push northward. Although MFF once had an outpost in Mequon, it retreated in 2012 and has never ventured beyond the North Shore suburbs until now.
That long reach might make the Rivoli seem a distant relative of the festival’s five other venues—after all, it’s located 22 miles away from MFF’s main hub on the East Side—but Ozaukee County filmgoers know the single-screen art deco theater, which has operated continuously since 1936, is more like a long-lost sibling finally finding home. With its red marquee, sidewalk box office and cozy lobby, the Rivoli is a throwback neighborhood treasure that perfectly matches the Milwaukee Film Festival’s genetic makeup.
Once inside the Rivoli’s main auditorium, filmgoers are always welcomed by a grinning, life-sized statue of Chaplin. If the silent comedian’s smile seems wider during this year’s festival, perhaps it’s because MFF will present one of the silent era’s crowning achievements, “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (1928), with live musical accompaniment performed by Milwaukee-based musicians. That’s the kind of drop-the-mic maneuver that prompted MovieMaker Magazine in July to rank MFF among the world’s coolest film festivals.
To my eyes, “The Passion of Joan of Arc” remains one of the most brutal yet transcendent movies ever made. By staging the final days of Joan’s trial and her execution with harsh physicality and a deep-rooted spiritual anguish—the movie contains none of Chaplin’s pathos—director Carl Theodor Dreyer evokes the teenage warrior’s inner life with overwhelming feeling. His stark, celebrated closeups of actress Maria Falconetti might be religious stone carvings, made with a point chisel rather than a camera.
Dreyer’s images have been engraved in my mind for so long that I’m curious about whether the fresh electronic score by composer George Sarah—who will be in town for Friday’s performance—will somehow modify their power.
The fusion of sight and sound is also central to the festival’s choices for opening and closing nights. The documentary “I Want My MTV” will kick things off by revisiting the early, money-for-nothing days of the groundbreaking music video channel, while “The Apollo” will clinch the festival by charting the cultural influence of the renowned Harlem theater.
Aaron Schimberg’s “Chained for Life,” a seriocomic indie about a ragtag crew making a low-budget horror flick, will serve as the fest’s centerpiece selection. In the movie-within-the-movie, a mad scientist operates on disabled patients so they can re-enter society. Schimberg uses that provocative premise to interrogate modern concerns about representation in cinema. Such hot-button topicality perhaps explains why the movie arrives in Milwaukee garlanded with five prizes from other fests, including the Florida Film Festival’s grand jury award.
“Our opening, centerpiece and closing films all look at the power of the arts to shape our lives,” Milwaukee Film Festival Director Cara Ogburn said in a news release. “They all contribute to important conversations about who we are as a society—and how we make changes toward who we want to be.”
More than 300 films will screen over 15 days at six locations. While the festival continues to sort titles into easy-to-navigate categories—among the 17 divisions are movies about artists, food, teens and the black community—the program book this year isn’t arranged by those strands. Instead, the features and short film packages are listed in alphabetical order with color-coded tags that signify their category.
Missing from the program book, though, is “Marriage Story,” a last-minute inclusion that counts as a major coup for Milwaukee Film. Starring Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver as divorcing spouses, Noah Baumbach’s drama will be screened ahead of its November release amid surging Oscar buzz.
Among the key international attractions is “Varda by Agnès,” the swan song by Agnès Varda, a French New Wave icon who died in March. There will also be new works by distinguished filmmakers such as Bong Joon Ho (“Parasite”), Bi Gan (“Long Day’s Journey Into Night”), Corneliu Porumboiu (“The Whistlers”), Peter Strickland (“In Fabric”), Jia Zhangke (“Ash Is Purest White”), François Ozon (“By the Grace of God”), Takashi Miike (“First Love”) and Zhang Yimou (“Shadow”).
Of the titles scheduled to play at the Rivoli, the premier pick could be the locally-produced “Give Me Liberty” (12:30 p.m., Oct. 20). Three years ago director Kirill Mikhanovsky received a $30,000 grant from the Brico Forward Fund, one of Milwaukee Film’s vehicles for supporting area filmmakers. The resulting movie, which features members of Milwaukee’s Russian immigrant community, is based partially on Mikhanovsky’s own experiences driving a medical transport van after moving with his family from Moscow to Wisconsin. The full-tilt comedy reportedly earned a 10-minute standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival in May.
The Broadway Theatre Center joins the Rivoli as a new participating venue, and what makes it an equally surprising choice is not its Third Ward location but how the space generally presents performing arts rather than movies. The two new sites replace the Fox-Bay Cinema Grill, a Whitefish Bay theater that has ended its MFF tenure after seven years.
Returning theaters include the flagship Oriental Theatre on the East Side; the Times Cinema in Washington Heights; the Avalon Theatre in Bay View; and the Jan Serr Cinema Studio, which repurposes the top floor of the Kenilworth Square East building as a short-term, fully functional movie theater just around the corner from the Oriental.
The festival runs Thursday through Oct. 31. The full lineup and ticket information are online at mkefilm.org.