The Reel Deal

With films from fourteen countries, the Miami Film Festival features a volatile mix of love, lust, and crime

Film festivals are the newest growth industry in South Florida. From Key West to Sarasota, they're proliferating like melaleuca trees. In Dade and Broward alone we've got the Black Film Festival, the Jewish Film Festival, the Queer Flickering Light festival, the Fort Lauderdale Film Festival, the South Beach Film Festival, the Art Deco Weekend Film Festival, and a smattering of student film festivals and mini-festivals featuring work from countries such as Italy and Brazil. Eleven years ago, however, there was only one. It is still the granddaddy of them all: the Miami Film Festival.

Spanish auteur Fernando Trueba, whose Belle epoque opens this year's Miami fest, summarizes the festival's appeal to prominent filmmakers worldwide very simply. "The Miami Film Festival," he says, "is run by people who truly love film. It is not a business for them. It is something from the heart."

Well, maybe. They probably wouldn't complain if they sold a few tickets along the way, though.

The Miami Film Festival has always made it a practice to attract films from as many countries as possible, augmented by the occasional U.S. production (usually independent). This year is no exception, although the inclusion of Franci Slak's When I Close My Eyes has to be considered something of a coup, considering the nation it came from, Slovenia, didn't even officially exist three years ago. Fourteen countries are represented by this year's 25 films. Three screenings are from former Iron Curtain lands -- Poland's Squadron, Slovenia's When I Close My Eyes, and Romania's Trahir (Betrayal).

As usual, several U.S.-made films (there are five in total) are among the festival's low achievers: Cisco Kid, The November Men, and Sugar Hill are out of their league here. They stand out like cheeseburgers amid the international gourmet fare. The French have sent along a Truffaut biography to bolster their usual contingent of romantic farces, and the English are well-represented by the fun BackBeat and the deliciously witty Four Weddings and a Funeral. Pedro Almod centsvar's eagerly anticipated Kika makes its U.S. premiere as the festival closer; two American films, Henry Jaglom's Babyfever and Luis Valdez's Cisco Kid, are world premieres, and six films will be representing their country in this year's Academy Awards balloting for Best Foreign Language Film.

If there is one country that deserves special mention because of the striking quality of its offerings, it is Spain. At a point when state subsidies for Spanish productions are scarcer than they have been at any time since the socialist government took charge, Spanish cinema ironically seems to be pulsing with creative vitality. Trueba's Belle epoque has the makings of a big international success, 26-year-old Basque wunderkind Juanma Bajo Ulloa's La madre muerta reveals an awesome directorial talent, and Almod centsvar's Kika marks a return to form for the most popular of current Spanish directors.

Go ahead. Sample the paella. You won't be disappointed.

Belle epoque
Written by Rafael Azcona; directed by Fernando Trueba; with Fernando Fernan G centsmez, Jorge Sanz, Maribel Verdu, Adriana Gil, Miriam Diaz-Aroca, and Penelope Cruz. Screens Friday at 8:00 p.m.

The first time you see young Spanish army deserter Fernando, hiding from a militia patrol in a patch of bushes by the side of the road, his pants are at his knees. He will spend the rest of the movie dropping his knickers in this seductive Spanish comedy that won nine Goyas (Spanish Academy Awards) and which represents Spain in the Best Foreign Language Film category of the American Oscars.

Like Jam centsn Jam centsn, the big hit at last year's festival as well as the Alliance Theater in Miami Beach where it has broken all attendance records, Belle epoque is rife with paradox. The film is at once anarchic and conventional, comic and tragic, sentimental and sensual. It's both a breezy comedy that opens with a murder-suicide and a male fantasy dominated by strong female characters. And it's a carnal farce with little nudity.

After his brush with the militia, Fernando befriends a middle-age painter named Manolo who has four beautiful daughters. Soon the women are taking turns bedding the handsome young deserter. Macho Violeta is into role reversal (the carnival sequence where Fernando, dressed as a maid, is ravished and abandoned by Violeta in a soldier's uniform, is a classic sendup of sexual stereotypes), flirtatious Rocio is engaged to a wealthy mama's boy, and Clara grieves for her husband who drowned. Only ripe, virginal Luz truly loves Fernando. Although the young lad doesn't realize it at the time, this is his belle epoque (beautiful time). And while he may not comprehend his good fortune, he certainly enjoys it while he can.

Director Fernando Trueba describes Belle epoque as the "story of Paradise: too good to last." Trueba's wise humanism and benign wit evoke memories of the great French cinematic poet Jean Renoir. In so many ways, his picture is the perfect choice to open the Miami Film Festival. For starters, it's a wonderful film from Spain, a country that, in spite of economic difficulties, is enjoying its own belle epoque (two other examples of which are on display at this year's fest: Ulloa's La madre muerta and the U.S. premiere of Almod centsvar's Kika, which closes the festival). It's sexy, which should generate publicity and help sell tickets. It's a comedy, which creates the proper lighthearted atmosphere for the all-important gala opening night party (everyone knows the parties are as important as the movies, if not more so). And, of course, it's in Spanish, which has an obvious appeal for Miami audiences.

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