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.

Cisco Kid
Written by Michael Kane and Luis Valdez; directed by Luis Valdez; with Jimmy Smits and Cheech Marin. Screens Saturday at 2:00 p.m.

For years director Luis Valdez (La bamba) has been trying to mount a production based on O. Henry's fictional womanizing Mexican mercenary, the Cisco Kid. He should have waited a few years longer. This half-baked burrito amounts to little more than a vanity vehicle for Jimmy Smits, who appears slightly embarrassed to be involved in the debacle. Only Cheech Marin as Cisco's loyal Juarista sidekick Pancho rises above the cheesy script and movie-of-the-week production values. But, hey, this is the world premiere!

Trahir (Betrayal)
Written by Radu Mihaileanu and Laurent Moussard; directed by Radu Mihaileanu; with Johan Leysen, Alexandru Repan, and Mireille Perrier. Screens Saturday at 4:30 p.m.

The institutionalized horror of totalitarian rule in Romania forms the basis for director Radu Mihaileanu's auspicious debut. Following the publication of a provocative article about the death of democracy in his country, Romania's most popular poet is jailed for eleven agonizing years in a dark waterlogged cell. A suicide attempt convinces the government to offer him a deal: freedom from prison and guaranteed uncensored publication of his poems in exchange for seemingly innocuous information about his friends and colleagues. Against his better judgment the poet accepts, but soon discovers that in a police state, compromise really means manipulation.

A slow-paced but gripping drama based on Mihaileanu's own experiences, this multinational coproduction (France, Romania, Switzerland, and Spain) took Grand Prix honors at last September's Montreal Film Festival.

Latin Jazz on Film: Paquito D'Rivera
Saturday at 7:00 p.m.
More mixed-media event than film, this live presentation hosted by the acclaimed Cuban saxophonist draws from a series of archival film clips to trace the history of Latin jazz on film, from Tin Tan's 1949 Mexican production of "Mambo Bebop" to documentary footage of last year's Heineken Jazz Festival in Puerto Rico.

BackBeat
Written and directed by Iain Softley; with Stephen Dorff, Sheryl Lee, Ian Hart, Gary Bakewell, and Chris O'Neill. Screens Saturday at 10:00 p.m.

You don't have to be a Beatles fan to get a kick out of this narrative based on the story of the legendary fifth Beatle, Stuart Sutcliffe, who died of a brain hemorrhage at the tender age of 22. Set in the heady pre-Sullivan days when the soon-to-be Fab Four were actually a five-piece band (Pete Best preceded Ringo on drums, Sutcliffe played bass, and John, Paul, and George all played guitar), BackBeat beautifully evokes the hard times, the sleazy venues, and the dues-paying the band endured prior to the onset of Beatlemania. Stephen Dorff makes a suitably enigmatic Sutcliffe, and Sheryl Lee is fine as his lover/muse Astrid Kirchherr. But BackBeat belongs to the actors who play the three main Beatles -- Chris O'Neill as George, Gary Bakewell as Paul, and particularly Ian Hart as John. They bear striking physical resemblance to their characters and deliver the acting goods as well. Hart, who was equally amazing as Lennon in last year's The Hours and the Times, absolutely nails the acid-tongued bandleader on-stage and off.

When the band's popularity starts to gather steam, BackBeat really takes off, employing swirling camera work, frenetic editing, and dynamic re-creations of the early Beatles sound (by an all-star band that includes Nirvana's Dave Grohl on drums, R.E.M.'s Mike Mills on bass, Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth on guitar, and Dave Pirner of Soul Asylum -- among others -- on vocals). The effect is exhilarating; imagine being at some dank after-hours club in a foreign country, front-row-center, when five raw musicians whose music will one day change the world take the stage.

When I Close My Eyes
Written and directed by Franci Slak; with Petra Govc. Screens Sunday at 2:00 p.m.

One of the most cherished attributes of the Miami Film Festival is its exhibition of films from a broad cross-section of countries. This 1993 Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film comes from a nation that didn't even exist a couple of years ago (Slovenia). Director Franci Slak's atmospheric thriller follows a postal clerk who falls in love with the thief who robs her at gunpoint at a remote post office and then vanishes. Can she find him before the police do? Stylish but only occasionally coherent, Slak's film reveals a budding talent -- but Hitchcock's reputation is safe for the time being.

32 Short Films About
Glenn Gould
Written by Franaois Girard and Don McKellar; directed by Franaois Girard; with Colm Feore. Screens Sunday at 4:30 p.m.

For those unfamiliar with his career, Glenn Gould was a brilliant but eccentric classical pianist who voluntarily stopped performing in public way before any decline in his skills may have warranted it. He died at the age of 50. Colm Feore plays the enigmatic genius in this impressionistic, unconventional narrative patterned after Bach's "Goldberg Variations" into 32 interconnected vignettes. Well-crafted and innovative enough to win four Canadian Academy Awards, including Best Film, it probably won't convert many nonfans to the joys of classical piano. Like Glenn Gould, the movie is interesting but no Amadeus.

Four Weddings and a Funeral
Written by Richard Curtis; directed by Mike Newell; with Hugh Grant, Andie MacDowell, and John Hannah. Screens Sunday at 7:00 p.m.

When Elton John saw an early cut of this film, he was so captivated by the witty, romantic comedy that he ran off to a studio to record a song for the opening titles. But don't hold that against it. Even Captain Fantastic can exhibit good taste once in a while.

Charlie and Carrie (Hugh Grant and Andie MacDowell) are veterans of the war between the sexes who meet each other at the wedding of mutual friends in England. It's love at first sight for the quick-witted Brit and the alluring American. They tryst immediately (MacDowell makes one persuasive seductress), but it takes a series of encounters at three more weddings and a funeral over the course of a year and a half for them to realize -- or admit -- their mutual ardor.

Along the way author Curtis and director Newell (Enchanted April) alternately skewer and celebrate the institution of matrimony more sharply than any English-language movie in recent memory. All the familiar elements take their turn, from the wedding-reception-from-Hell to the nervous priest who blesses husband and wife "in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Goat."

The outstanding ensemble, which in addition to Grant and MacDowell features roughly a dozen supporting actors in prominent roles, wrings every ounce of piquant jocularity and bittersweet irony from Curtis's waggish wordplay. (Example: A grief-stricken lover eulogizes his deceased paramour: "His recipe for duck … la banana thankfully goes with him to his grave.") From opening titles to closing credits, Four Weddings is a caustic comedy that cracks the combination of holy wedlock.

Suture
Written and directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel; with Dennis Haysbert, Mel Harris, and Dina Merrill. Screens Sunday at 9:30 p.m.

The nature of human identity is the thematic thread that runs through Suture. Steven Soderbergh was the executive producer of this oddball suspense flick stitched onto a tired mistaken identity-amnesia premise. The central inside joke -- a pair of identical-looking brothers are played by a black actor (Dennis Haysbert) and a white actor (Michael Harris) who look nothing alike -- enables the filmmakers to poke fun at racial stereotypes. The camerawork is fluid and lyrical, almost hypnotic. But the story is tired and the acting is inconsistent, and the decision to film in black-and-white appears to have had more to do with budgetary constraints than with artistic considerations. The result is a flawed but interesting debut from McGehee and Siegel.

El acto en cuesti centsn
(The Act in Question)
Written and directed by Alejandro Agresti; with Carlos Roffe. Screens Monday at 7:00 p.m.

Cinema doesn't get much more curious than this quirky fable by the Argentinian director Alejandro Agresti. Main character Miguel Quiroga has a peculiar habit: He loves books so much he steals them from second-hand shops by day and reads them by night. In one text he learns a secret that enables him to make anything, even people, vanish. He converts that knowledge into a magic act and quickly becomes world famous. But he is haunted by the fear that another copy of the book exists somewhere and his secret will be revealed.

Shot on the fly in black and white, El acto en cuesti centsn feels unfinished by design. The technique takes a while to get used to, as do the Spartan sets and elliptical conversations. In the end it's hard to define exactly what Agresti's intentions are, but you can't resist trying.

Johnny cien pesos
Written by Gustavo Graef Marino and Gerardo Caceres; directed by Gustavo Graef Marino; with Armando Araiza and Patricia Rivera. Screens Monday at 9:30 p.m.

Would you like some Chile on your Dog Day Afternoon? This relentless thriller is based on a true story that took place in Santiago, Chile, in 1990. A hapless band of would-be desperados led by a seventeen-year-old student named Johnny Garcia rob a small business that turns out to be a front for money laundering. Something goes wrong; the robbers are trapped inside and forced to take hostages. As hundreds of well-armed police arrive, so do the TV cameras. A nation of ten million witnesses the tense standoff. (Documentary footage of the actual coverage is interspersed throughout the narrative.) Chile's 1993 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar entry.

The November Men
Written by James Andronica; directed by Paul Williams; with James Andronica, Paul Williams, and Robert Davi. Screens Tuesday at 7:00 p.m.

A high curiosity factor is about all November Men has going for it. Back in the Sixties Paul Williams wrote and directed a trio of films that gave future stars such as actor Jon Voight and director of photography John Avildsen (who would go on to direct Rocky and The Karate Kid) their big breaks. He's been out of the theatrical film directing business since 1974's Nunzio, written by November Men author and costar James Andronica.

The November Men is an unfortunate choice for a comeback vehicle -- a film-within-a-film political assassination thriller, complete with every cliche the genre has to offer. Williams himself stars as an egomaniacal director who will stop at nothing to get his film made. It's a bad casting decision. Williams's screen presence is not what you'd call riveting. Andronica's dialogue is by turns contrived and stilted; at least he acts better than he writes. After viewing The November Men, you may be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that Williams's twenty-year absence from the big screen was not entirely his own decision.

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.

Flashy direction and quality ensemble acting only carry you so far. Sugar Hill looks sweet but has no nutritional value whatsoever.

Tango
Written and directed by Patrice Leconte; with Philippe Noiret, Richard Bohringer, and Thierry Lhermitte. Screens Friday, February 11, at 10:00 p.m.

Only the French would attempt to get away with a movie like this. Philippe Noiret, Richard Bohringer, and Thierry Lhermitte are Franaois, Vincent, and Paul respectively, three men on a mission -- to kill Paul's wife. Franaois is a powerful judge and a lifelong bachelor who uses some case files he deliberately suppressed to blackmail Vincent, who murdered his unfaithful wife and her lover but was miraculously acquitted in Franaois's courtroom. The judge's nephew Paul has problems of his own: His wife Marie has just walked out on him because she got fed up with Paul's philandering. At his nephew's behest, Franaois -- acting in a most unjudicial manner -- insists that Vincent kill Marie or the judge will produce the suppressed files and reopen Vincent's case.

Granted, the premise is paper thin, but, well, it's French. They see things differently over there. Marie didn't do anything wrong, but that's beside the point. Paul can't enjoy being single knowing that she left him, so she has to die. The three hit the road in search of Marie, and so begins one of the darkest, funniest buddy pictures since Bertrand Blier's Going Places. Noiret and Bohringer are masterful, Lhermitte holds his own, and director Patrice Leconte (Monsieur Hire) keeps it all moving at a pleasant clip.

Franaois Truffaut:
Stolen Portraits
Written and directed by Serge Toubiana and Michel Pascal. Screens Saturday, February 12, at 2:00 p.m.

The quintessential French auteur is profiled in this affectionate but even-handed documentary. Composed primarily of talking-heads interviews with the director's surviving colleagues and family, this one could have been titled "For Truffaut Lovers Only." Depardieu, Ardant, Aurel, Bazin, Rohmer, Chabrol, Ophuls A if you recognize these names you'll enjoy Stolen Portraits. If you don't recognize them, rent The 400 Blows or The Woman Next Door first.

Fiorile
Written by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani and Sandro Petraglia; directed by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani; with Michael Vartan, Galatea Ranzi, and Claudio Bigagli. Screens Saturday, February 12, at 4:30 p.m.

"A hundred rinses cannot wash away these kinds of stains," warns Duilio, eighteenth-century patriarch of the Benedetti ("the blessed") clan in the rolling hills of Tuscany. He's a poor farmer speaking to his fellow villagers in the town square, where a French lieutenant named Jean will be executed at dawn unless a chest of gold coins that was stolen from the Frenchman's command is returned overnight. Unbeknownst to Duilio, his own son Corrado stole the gold that afternoon while the younger Benedetti's sister Elisabetta was making love to Jean in a nearby meadow. When Duilio finds out that his son committed the robbery and that his daughter surrendered her maidenhood to the lieutenant, the patriarch's decision not to return the treasure results in Jean's death. Elisabetta, pregnant with Jean's baby, swears revenge on the thief, unaware of her family's complicity in the crime. She dies during childbirth, the first victim of a curse that will dog the Benedetti family for two centuries, causing fellow villagers to mockingly refer to them as the Maledettis ("the cursed").

Fiorile, the latest release from the Tavianis, the Italian brother team responsible for Padre Padrone and the exquisite Night of the Shooting Stars, is a romantic fable spanning several generations. By Taviani standards, the film is average. But even second-tier Taviani is superior to the best efforts of most filmmakers. The spectacular panoramas of lush Italian countryside, long a Taviani trademark, are as gorgeous as ever, the acting is solid, and the story, while occasionally confusing, is diverting. The film is no Jean de Florette, but it's no Falcon Crest, either.

Babyfever
Written by Henry Jaglom and Victoria Foyt; directed by Henry Jaglom; with Eric Roberts and Victoria Foyt. Screens Saturday, February 12, at 7:00 p.m.

This film is to women and their biological clocks what Jaglom's 1991 film Eating was to women and their relationships with food. Jaglom sends his protagonist, thirtyish Gena (covwriter Victoria Foyt), to a baby shower and basically just lets the camera run as the women in attendance discuss the options available when that tick, tick, ticking grows into a roar.

The Cronos Device
Written and directed by Guillermo Del Toro; with Federico Luppi and Ron Perlman. Screens Saturday, February 12, at 10:00 p.m.

A little new blood works wonders for the tired old vampire film in this gothic tale about a sixteenth-century alchemist's invention that turns up in an antique shop in modern-day Mexico City. The cronos device, as it's called, has the power to bestow upon its owner both eternal life and a thirst for human blood. The fun starts when an aging millionaire reads the alchemist's original diary and dispatches his greedy nephew to steal the device from the antique shop proprietor.

As superbly crafted as the coveted gizmo itself, The Cronos Device succeeds by adding a few inventive twists to an overworked genre. Partly in English, partly in Spanish, this Mexican delight is that country's entry in the Best Foreign Language Film category of the 1993 Academy Awards.

Il grande cocomero
(The Great Pumpkin)
Written and directed by Francesca Archibugi; with Alessia Fugardi and Sergio Castellitto. Screens Sunday, February 13, at 2:00 p.m.

Italy's official entry in the 1993 Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film is this poignant drama about a young girl named Pippi who suffers from epileptic seizures. She becomes the patient of a lonely, overworked psychiatrist because the neurology ward of the state-run hospital where he works is overcrowded and he's the only doctor there who's willing to help Pippi when her mother drops her off. The shrink, Arturo, treats Pippi with unconventional therapy and gets unconventional -- but positive -- results. Like last year's Il ladro di bambini, the film derives much of its strength from the haunting performances of its youthful cast, led by Alessia Fugardi as twelve-year-old Pippi.

Based loosely on the real-life story of neuro-psychiatrist Marco Lombardo Radice, who influenced the Italian medical community in the Seventies and Eighties by advocating psychotherapy over drug-based treatments, writer-director Francesca Archibugi's film has a lot to say -- about the rigidness of conventional medicine, the ineffectiveness of government institutions, and the impact of family turmoil on a child's emotional development. Put simply, it's haunting, heart-wrenching, and unforgettable.

Squadron
Written and directed by Juliusz Machulski. Screens Sunday, February 13, at 4:30 p.m.

Juliusz Machulski's story of a squadron of Russian dragoons sent to pacify the Polish National Insurrection plays like a well-made U.S. Civil War epic. And well it should: the Insurrection took place at the same time Union troops and Confederate soldiers were spilling each other's blood over here. All the familiar war-movie themes are sensitively illuminated: the nature of honor and loyalty, the frequent conflicts between morality and duty, the insanity of war, the cruelty of fate. Machulski's film breaks little new ground, but it's a powerhouse nonetheless and deserves the honor of being chosen to represent Poland in the Best Foreign Language Film category at this year's Academy Awards.

Kika
Written and directed by Pedro Almod centsvar; with Veronica Forque, Peter Coyote, and Victoria Abril. Screens Sunday, February 13, at 7:00 p.m.

Almod centsvar is back, and he's as loony, as tasteless, as controversial, and as irreverent as ever. Kika (Veronica Forque)is a chatty, ditzy, hyperoptimistic makeup artist who will not let anything bring her down (not even being raped). Ram centsn (Alex Casanovas) is her uncommunicative lover. Nicholas (Peter Coyote) is a homicidal expatriate American, as well as Ram centsn's stepfather and Kika's occasional lover. Andrea (Victoria Abril) is the ruthless TV reporter who once loved Ram centsn and now prowls the deteriorating streets of Madrid in a bizarre futuristic uniform (designed by Gaultier) whose distinguishing feature is a revolving camera mounted atop a helmet. Expect the usual Almod centsvar traits: machine gun pacing, zany antics, stylized sets and costumes, and scintillating dialogue that loses some of its zing in the translation to subtitles.

So there you have it. Twenty-five films and one live presentation over ten days. Director Trueba told me that one of the things he likes most about the Miami Film Festival is that there aren't any prizes, so I've come up with a few awards and predictions of my own that I don't think will violate the spirit of non-competition:

Biggest surprise: Four Weddings and a Funeral
Biggest disappointment: Desperate Remedies
Most fun: BackBeat
Least fun: The November Men
Hottest ticket: Kika
Coldest ticket: Betrayal
Sleeper A don't miss: Il grande cocomero (The Great Pumpkin)
Sleep through: Sugar Hill
Stock up on the Visine now.

All films will be screened at the Gusman Center for Performing Arts, 174 E. Flagler St., Miami. The general public can buy tickets at the Gusman box office, 372-0925; members of the Film Society of Miami can call 377-2138.

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