Friday, October 10, 2014

"I've Seen the Unicorn" - Chicago International Film Festival

Major film festivals such as the Chicago International Film Festival (this year hosting its 50th annual celebration of cinema) are great affairs, if only for the fact that there is always a great array of offerings for film lovers. You can see movies on subjects from sexual awakening to charming treatises on the wisdom of the elderly or maybe you prefer more "important" offerings about social revolution in various countries or political dramas; there's usually something for everyone.

But after viewing many of the "serious" films, sometimes I'm ready for a smaller work, one with wit and insight about a subject I wasn't aware of. This week I've Seen the Unicorn is that film that enchanted me and told me a story about a small island and its love for horse racing, from the young boys that work the stables to the big name owners and jockeys that participate in the most important races.

The nation island is Mauritius, located in the Indian Ocean. Having gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1968, the nation has, according to one inhabitant we follow in the film, "Beaches and horse racing."

The centerpiece of the film is a famous horse race, held annually, called The Maiden Cup. Every top stable, trainer and jockey do whatever they can to win this race, which brings to the victor great fame as well as some good money. We are introduced to a local owner named Soon Gujadhur, who heads the most successful locally-owned stable on the island. He has some very good horses, but he's never won this race, having witnessed foreign owners capture this crown. He's a sympathetic individual and we the audience, clearly root for him in his quest.

We also follow the plight of jockey Robbie Burke, who left his native Ireland years ago, as he knew he wouldn't be very successful at home, given the great number of riders there. He's done well for himself in Mauritius and as we follow his story, we learn that he is the leading rider on the island in terms of races and purse money won. But he's never won the Maiden Cup and as he will ride one of the horses owned by Gujadhur, we now have a double rooting interest.

Other individuals we are introduced to are a middle-aged bettor who attends the races four days a week, as he lives next to the track. He's a typical bettor, one that manages to cash a few tickets, all the while dreaming of hitting a big payout one day. We also watch a young boy of about nine or ten pursue his aspiration of becoming a jockey. That day may come down the road, but for now, he has to clean out stalls and hot walk horses; it's all part of a big dream.

In the final analysis, I guess it's this aspect of realizing a dream that makes I've Seen the Unicorn  such a wonderful, enchanting, personal film. Director Vincent Toi realizes that all of us dream big from time to time, so naturally we'll be rooting for Soon Gujadhur and Robbie Burke as well as that charismatic bettor and that young boy. We want to see all of them succeed and it's this human level that makes this film so entertaining.

Of course, if this weren't well filmed, if we didn't enter into the world of horse racing, then we wouldn't care. But it's done extremely well in all aspects, especially the scenes of various races, as the images are tight, the sound of horses' hooves hitting the turf are mesmerizing and the shots of the horses giving their all are pure poetry. The big race is beautifully edited, as the cutting take us from the view of the race to images of the owners and the fans screaming for their horse to win. It's a thrilling few minutes in the film and serves as a nice climax.

I love horse racing, so I was highly entertained by this film, which comes to us from Canada. But even if you know little about thoroughbred racing, all long as you're a bit of a dreamer, you're certain to enjoy this film and the inhabitants it chronicles so well.

I've Seen the Unicorn - Directed by Vincent Toi - Canada

To be shown at the Chicago International Film Festival on:

Saturday, October 11 at 4:30 PM and Sunday, October 12 at 3:15

at the AMC River East 21 theater, 322 E. Illinois Street

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