The Reel Deal

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

La madre muerta
(The Dead Mother)
Written by Eduardo and Juanma Bajo Ulloa; directed by Juanma Bajo Ulloa; with Karra Elejalde, Ana Alvarez, and Lio. Screens Tuesday at 9:30 p.m.

Ismael is an amoral thief, the kind of guy who can beat a hapless tavern owner senseless with his bare hands, drown him with beer from his own tap, and laugh about it afterward. Maite is Ismael's equally creepy and remorseless lover-accomplice. And La madre muerta is the gripping, smarmy story of the changes wrought in their relationship by the kidnapping of a beautiful but mute and mentally retarded young woman whose mother Ismael killed during a home-invasion robbery years earlier.

La madre muerta is a powerful tale of evil and innocence, blood-lust and compassion. Like Bigas Luna's Bilbao, the film makes you squirm. You may want to take a shower when it's over, but you can't take your eyes off it once you start watching.

Conte d'hiver (A Tale of Winter)
Written and directed by Eric Rohmer; with Charlotte Very. Screens Wednesday at 7:00 p.m.

Eric Rohmer is one of the masters of the French romantic comedy. Plotwise, not much happens in his films; they are characterized by penetrating insight and lots of dialogue. For some they are revelatory, for others they are excruciatingly slow and uneventful. Conte d'hiver is no exception. Parisian Felicie has a brief, passionate affair with Charles while vacationing in Brittany. They part A only temporarily, they think A but Felicie accidentally gives him her incorrect address in Paris. The tryst produces a daughter, but try as she might Felicie cannot locate her lover. Years later she finds herself being courted by two new suitors, a hairdresser and a librarian, but her heart still pines for Charles. From the wistful premise to the subtly shaded dialogue, Conte d'hiver is vintage Rohmer -- dry, but with a delicate bouquet.

Gatica, el mono
Written by Leonardo Favio and Zuhair Jury; directed by Leonardo Favio; with Edgardo Nieva. Screens Wednesday at 9:30 p.m.

Both the protagonist and the filmmaker are intriguing characters in this 1993 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar contender from Argentina. Jose Maria Gatica, El Mono (the monkey), was a scrappy little street fighter who rose to international prominence as a boxer and became Argentina's most revered and legendary pugilist. Writer-director Favio was a prizewinning Argentine filmmaker who gave it up to become a pop singing sensation, and returns to his original love with this populist portrait of a champion whose life was the stuff of myth.

La crise (The Crisis)
Written and directed by Coline Serreau; with Vincent Lindon and Patrick Timsit. Screens Thursday, February 10, at 7:00 p.m.

Director Coline Serreau's lighthearted comedy is similar in tone to her best-known film, Trois hommes et un couffin (Three Men and a Cradle). La crise tells the tale of a high-flying corporate attorney named Victor whose life unravels in one really bad day. His wife leaves him, he gets canned from his job, and his friends are all too absorbed in their own troubled lives to listen to his problems. Victor goes from one friend or relative to the next looking for a shoulder to cry on, yet never gets a chance to recount his woes. But a funny thing happens -- for the first time in his life he starts to really listen, and the wisdom he gains from his experience helps Victor find the way out of his crisis. It may sound like the stuff of melodrama, but in Serreau's hands it's actually very funny, packing all the tasty fluff of a traditional French pastry with none of the calories.

Desperate Remedies
Written and directed by Stewart Main and Peter Wells; with Jennifer Ward-Lealand, Kevin Smith, and Cliff Curtis. Screens Thursday, February 10, at 9:30 p.m.

Bizarre camera angles, harsh lighting, vividly colored sets, garish costumes, and twisted dialogue mark this subversive high-camp period piece as anything but run-of-the-mill. Sex -- gay, bi, and straight -- is the constant subtext of this lust-driven tale set in a town in nineteenth-century colonial New Zealand. Duplicity, deceit, and dark secrets abound. "We're all strangers in this land called love!" cries one heartbroken character.

Imagine Peter Greenaway directing The Rocky Horror Picture Show with a dollop of Pee-wee's Playhouse thrown in for good measure. A few will love it; most will hate it. Don't be surprised if it becomes a cult favorite.

Sugar Hill
Written by Barry Michael Cooper; directed by Leon Ichaso; with Wesley Snipes, Michael Wright, and Abe Vigoda. Screens Friday, February 11, at 7:00 p.m.

Sampling cliches from every Harlem shoot-'em-up from 1972's Superfly to 1991's New Jack City, Sugar Hill is just another gangster movie with delusions of grandeur. Cuban director Le centsn Ichaso takes great pains to ensure that viewers will sympathize with his leading man's dilemma -- he's a heroin dealer with a guilty conscience. Wesley Snipes works hard to convince you that his powder-pushing protagonist isn't really enjoying the fruits of his filthy labor. His mother OD'd. His father is a junkie. The nice girl Snipes's character wants to settle down with won't have anything to do with him until he quits the drug biz. His Mafia suppliers (led by Abe Vigoda -- Fish, where did you go wrong?) are trying to squeeze him out. His hotheaded brother wants to go to war with the uptown boys. Your heart just bleeds for the poor guy in his $1000 suits, his opulent apartment, and his exotic car.

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