Festival Seating

While each year the general public awaits the unveiling of a colorful poster heralding the arrival of the Miami Film Festival (February 2-11), I await the annual unveiling of an equally colorful excuse for not being able to preview festival films in time to meet my deadline. This year I had my pick of three alibis: the U.S. government shutdown owing to the budget standoff, the postal strike in France, and the blizzard of the century. All of these factors delayed the transport of films to our sunny shores. As a result, at press time I have had an opportunity to sample only half a dozen courses from the festival's 23-entree film menu. Three of those screen during the festival's second week; I will review them in next week's issue.

Regarding the three that ran during the fest's first week, Roberto Benigni's The Monster literally reduced me to tears of laughter. I know that in his native Italy Benigni is revered as one of the great cinema clowns of all time, but I've never cared for his brand of slapstick. Until now. (His Johnny Stecchino sparkled at times, but more often bogged down in silliness, and Son of the Pink Panther maintains a spot on my all-time ten-worst list.) But The Monster completely turned around my opinion of Benigni. As he did in Johnny Stecchino, Benigni wrote, directed, and starred in this comic romp rooted in a case of mistaken identity. In fact I think he even wears the same suit in both films. This time out a homicide detective and a criminal psychologist conclude that Benigni's horny, hapless everyman character is the serial sex killer they've been chasing. They bait a trap for the little schlemiel using a sexy undercover policewoman. The hilarity that ensues defies easy description; suffice it to say I haven't laughed so hard at a movie since Muriel's Wedding from last year's festival.

Not until you've left the theater do you realize how cleverly Benigni worked in a few pointed jabs at modern law enforcement and the Italian economy. There's nothing scary about Benigni's Monster except the ease with which the comedian elicits belly laughs from a subject as seemingly unfunny as mass murder. While Benigni may have bitten his own tail in his outright assault on the Pink Panther legacy, this film establishes him as Italy's answer to Peter Sellers.

There's nothing funny about Flamenco, billed as the "crowning achievement" in director Carlos Saura's ongoing exploration of his country's passionate music and dance idiom. Shot in an abandoned train station decked out in stark, simple sets, Saura's movie features two hours of performances by leading flamenco dancers, singers, and guitarists of all ages. And be forewarned: The title says it all. Flamenco is nothing but. Assembled without any narrative thread, the movie delivers a definitive state-of-the-art anthology. Enlivened by white-hot performances from the likes of Paco de Lucia and Joaquin Cortes and the exquisite camerawork of Vittorio Storaro, Flamenco dances its way into the hearts of aficionados. For nonfanatics such as this reviewer, however, it's probably too much of a good thing to fully appreciate.

"You tell such beautiful lies," sighs the fetching actress Natalija as she swoons into the arms of con man-poet-patriot Marko in Underground. She could just as well be speaking of director Emir Kusturica, whose tragicomic masterwork was named best film at Cannes last year, and anchors the 1996 Miami Film Festival. Kusturica packs so many stunningly original images into this three-hour epic that his film can simply overwhelm viewers.

Marko and his best friend Blacky are a pair of opportunists living in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, in 1941 when the Nazis invade. The duo's glee in ripping off their German oppressors makes them both rich men and heroes of the communist resistance. But thousands of jackbooted soldiers do not threaten their bond in quite the same way that Natalija does; both men love her. Blacky has the inside track, however, and Marko resigns himself to the role of best man at their wedding. But a Nazi commandant named Franz who also has a crush on the actress interrupts the ceremony and takes Blacky prisoner. Marko comes to the rescue and earns Blacky's undying loyalty, which Marko quickly takes advantage of: He hides his best friend in the cellar of a house where several partisan families have taken refuge. Marko, remaining above ground and wooing and winning Natalija while continuing to prey upon the Nazi invaders, turns the underground community into a profitable weapons factory. All they know of the outside world is what Marko tells them.

The war ends, the Germans retreat, and Marko has it all -- money, prestige, power, and a beautiful woman. The last thing he wants to see is his old friend Blacky reappearing to reclaim Natalija. So for twenty years he perpetuates the charade that the war rages on, with the Germans controlling Yugoslavia. Marko keeps his loyal friend Blacky and dozens of partisans -- even his own brother -- underground. His ability to mastermind such an elaborate deception is rivaled only by Kusturica's proficiency at successfully pulling off such a vast, expansive, convoluted tragicomedy. From the exhilarating horse-drawn carriage ride that opens the film to the bombing of the Belgrade zoo and the chaos that results, to the bravura sequence in which Blacky emerges from two decades in the cellar to lead a two-man commando raid on a movie crew that's in the midst of filming Marko's memoirs, every frame of Underground confirms Kusturica's status as a celluloid visionary of the first magnitude. Irony, humor, treachery, sadness -- it's all here in abundance.

Unfortunately, like many gifted filmmakers, Kusturica overindulges himself. Wonderful though the film may be, Underground's grandiosity pummels the viewer into submission. The film simply goes on too long. The cumulative effect of so many dazzling images piled atop each other is a sort of numbness, as if you've been bludgeoned with brilliance. Kusturica, the ringmaster of this fantastic circus, knows every trick but one -- when to quit.

While bringing quality films to Miami from around the world is what the Miami Film Festival does best, in recent years the seminars and special programs that flesh out the main event have risen dramatically in popularity. And with good reason. Last year's film critics' panel moderated by Harlan Jacobson and story-structure workshop taught by Columbia's David McKenna offered both entertainment and insight on a grand scale for an astonishingly low price -- nothing, to be exact. Jacobson moderates the criticism roundtable again this year (Saturday, February 3, 10:00 a.m.), and while he doesn't have any "superstars" (like Taxi Driver author Paul Schrader or Newsweek writer David Ansen, both from 1995's group) joining him this year, the radically divergent constituencies served by Variety's Emanuel Levy, the Christian Science Monitor's David Steritt, and NPR's Pat Dowell should make for some heated debate. And both James Ryan's character-centered screenwriting seminar (Sunday, February 4, 10:00 a.m.) and Barry Michael Cooper's (New Jack City) filmmaker's forum (Monday, February 5, 1:00 p.m.) should provide plenty of valuable tips for those considering (or already engaged in) writing a movie script.

No one with even a passing interest in making an independent film has a good excuse for missing John Pierson's discussion (Saturday, February 10, 1:00 p.m.), which goes under the same title as his recent Miramax/Hyperion book, Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes: A Guided Tour Across a Decade of American Independent Cinema. Variety once labeled Pierson the "guru of independent film," and rightly so. Among other accomplishments, he produced Spike Lee's first feature She's Gotta Have It, sold the rights to the popular documentary Roger & Me, turned Clerks into a sleeper hit, and has had a hand in the successes of Slacker, The Thin Blue Line, and Amongst Friends, amongst others. If anyone can tell you what to do and, more important, what not to do when making an independent film, it's Pierson.

Traditionally the seminar program features a talk with the writer and director of the Miami Film Festival's opening-night offering. This go-round, noted author Guillermo Cabrera Infante fetes Two Much's Fernando Trueba (Saturday, February 3, 12:30 p.m.). I had the pleasure of interviewing Trueba two years ago when his Belle Epoque premiered at the Miami Film Festival, and then went on to garner acclaim as that year's Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars. Trueba, while soft-spoken, is a freethinker with a wry sense of humor -- as much a character as those who populate his films. Two Much marks a major departure for the Spaniard -- his first English-language film. It should be interesting to hear what he has to say about the film's making. Just don't expect any inside dirt on the Antonio Banderas-Melanie Griffith romance that ignited during filming here in Miami. Trueba's the kind of guy who deflects gossip with a shrug and a bemused smile.

The Miami Film Festival runs from February 2 to 11. All films show at downtown's Gusman Center, 174 E Flagler St. Tickets are available through the Gusman box office, 372-0925, or Ticketmaster, 358-5885. Seminars, unless otherwise noted, are conducted in room 2106 of Miami-Dade Community College's Wolfson Campus, 300 NE 2nd Ave. Admission to all seminars is free. For more information call 377-3456, or see our "Calendar" listings for a complete schedule of dates and times.

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