In "Gimme the Loot," a loose, disarming bit of larceny — and one of the bright offerings of the 48th Chicago International Film Festival — director Adam Leon's Bronx-bred characters live to tag. Teenage graffiti artists on the run, the friends dream of the day they'll make their mark on the pop-up New York Mets home-run logo at Citi Field.
Malcolm, played by Ty Hickson, and Sofia, played by Tashiana Washington, do a lot of different things for money, many of them illegal. But there's a sweet spirit to this episodic, quick-witted, amiably trash-talking indie, barely 75 minutes long minus the end credits. Leon (who won a prize at the recent South by Southwest film festival in Austin, Texas) favors long, uninterrupted conversational takes and a light touch. He likes his characters, and so, despite the criminality on view, we do too. Leon's a comer.
"Gimme the Loot" (screening 8:10 p.m. Wednesday and 6:30 p.m. Thursday) represents a sliver of the English-language pie in this year's festival. The event unfurled its red carpet Thursday night, with the opening-night presentation of the comedy "Stand Up Guys." But Friday marks the true, multi-title, multilingual start of the festival, whose home base is the AMC River East 21 downtown. Seven of the 21 screens will be devoted to festival screenings, with an occasional eighth wrested away from the likes of "Taken 2."
There's much to recommend for the first weekend of the festival, which continues through Oct. 25. Examples? "Beyond the Hills" (8:15 p.m. Friday; repeats 8:30 p.m. Monday), from Romanian writer-director Cristian Mungiu. "Holy Motors" (9 p.m. Friday; 7:45 p.m. Sunday), from the mad Frenchman Leos Carax. "Like Someone in Love" (5 p.m. Saturday; 8:30 p.m. Tuesday), from the Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami. All three garnered many champions in Cannes and Toronto.
This week, in advance of the festival proper, I caught "The Cleaner," from first-time Peruvian director Adrian Saba. (It screens 8:30 p.m. Monday, 5:45 p.m. Tuesday and 4 p.m. Oct. 19.) It's a spare if surprisingly sentimental piece, set in the midst of a mysterious epidemic in which a Lima cleanup specialist finds himself in charge of a preteen boy he finds hiding in the apartment of a victim. Essentially this is "The Kid" mashed up with "Contagion," and although there's not much in the material itself, Saba clearly has studied every good early 21st century Romanian picture's rhythm, pacing and visual austerity.
The vastly different and more rewarding "Rhino Season" (3:30 Wednesday, 2:15 p.m. Oct. 20 and 7:45 Oct. 21) is as visually aggressive as "The Cleaner" is restrained. Martin Scorsese has lent his name and support with a "presented by" credit. Inspired by the life and imprisonment of Kurdish-Iranian poet Sadegh Kamangar, whose work raised the ire of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary forces, exiled director Bahman Ghobadi's elliptical picture was filmed in Iraq and Turkey. The fictionalized poet of the film is played by Behrouz Vossoughi, in a largely nonverbal performance; Monica Belluci plays his wife and fellow prisoner — a woman after whom her chauffeur, now a political player, has lusted for years.
The film may share some narrative complications with the earlier "Incendies," but "Rhino Season" unapologetically favors poetry over prose, layering its images and time frames in elegantly wrought detail. At times the visual landscape feels fussy. But Ghobadi's a real filmmaker, which is what you want to see in any international film festival.
For more information, and for the updated festival schedule, go to chicagofilmfestival.com.