Festward Ho!

Sometimes whispering, sometimes screaming, the fourteenth Miami Film Festival (January 31 to February 9) corrals thirty-two full-length films and five shorts, including eleven U.S. premieres, from fourteen different nations. The mix, as usual, leans heavily on recent U.S. (six), Spanish (five), and Latin American (five) works, but also features the 30-year anniversary re-releases of Arthur Penn's stylishly violent Bonnie and Clyde and Swedish director Bo Widerberg's beautifully photographed nineteenth-century love story Elvira Madigan.

As it did in 1995 (Miami Rhapsody) and 1996 (Two Much), the festival debuts a "Miami" movie, in this case Bob Rafelson's Blood & Wine. Mercifully, however, the Film Society of Miami, which coordinates and presents this ten-day cinematic clambake, decided not to open this year's fest with hometown fluff, reserving that honor for Cosi, a piece of Australian fluff. (Apparently enough fluff exists internationally to warrant such charitability; now, if the fest had bowed with Chen Kaige's highly charged melodrama Temptress Moon, that would've been ballsy.)

In addition to films, the festival offers a peck of free seminars that will bring together directors, critics, actors, producers, and various industry muckamucks for what promises to be some lively discussions. Particularly intriguing, at least on paper: "Whose Miami?" (an examination of the way the city has been characterized on-screen) and "Making Movies: A Case Study of Daytrippers" (the director, producer, and two of the stars of this festival entrant dissect the project from inception to wrap).

Reviews of four films that will screen in the fest's opening days appear below. Readers also are encouraged to seek out several works not addressed here, notably: Temptress Moon; Robert Altman's Jazz '34: Remembrances of Kansas City Swing, the iconoclastic director's name-above-the-title filming of a jam session of contempo jazz luminaries (James Carter, Joshua Redman, Ron Carter, Don Byron, and others); and both Widerberg's Elvira Madigan and his most recent film, 1995's All Things Fair. (Capsule reviews for entries not dealt with here appear on page 55.) Next week's New Times will contain reviews for films presented during the second half of the festival.

Painfully obvious, relentlessly self-conscious, tediously overwrought, and poorly conceived and executed on almost every level, director Michael Lindsay-Hogg's Guy (Saturday at 11:30 a.m.) posits itself as bold and innovative when it's merely abrasive and dumb. A film about a film, Guy chronicles the process of an unseen/unnamed L.A. woman filmmaker (Hope Davis) -- known only as "Camera" -- selecting a walking, talking subject for a cinema verite project (a guy named Guy, played by round-faced Vincent D'Onofrio -- hello, Everyman!), and then following/stalking him here, there, and everywhere. She documents the big events and the minutiae of his life, from peeing and sleeping to working -- he's a middleman for a stolen car operation -- and making love with his girlfriend. Mostly, though, Camera captures him responding to her intrusion, with Guy moving from open hostility to gradual acceptance to, finally, outright need.

Initially, when Guy recoils from Camera's camera, Lindsay-Hogg and director of photography Arturo Smith use the shaky-cam technique made famous in a thousand slasher movies to convey a hunter/game motif. But as Guy quits his protestations and embraces both Camera and camera, Guy takes a more formal cinematographic approach, seguing into what amounts to a one-man performance -- less Spalding Gray monologue, mind you, than mercilessly mugging MTV veejay.

The film makes two other significant -- and even more annoying -- shifts. In keeping with Camera's no-frills documentary style, at first one hears only the conversations she has with Guy, plus ambient street sounds. But Lindsay-Hogg gradually adds snatches of simpering trumpet and synth music to the background in order to signify the pair's inevitable dance of mutual attraction; then he stirs in snippets of songs by cool-school bands such as Morphine and Poi Dog Pondering. Presto: Maysles brothers cinema verite jarringly morphs into John Hughes brat-packer territory. Worse, Camera's unadulterated documentary eventually develops a bad case of film-school hiccups, introducing jump cuts, fades, slo-mo's, and, during the film's mortifying denouement, as Camera and Guy's "relationship" completely disintegrates, a dreamy, superimposed flashback of Guy nattering about "surfing on giant marbles."

While Guy appears to consider itself a confrontational polemic on the inextricability of life and art (a somewhat duh, if not totally unworthy endeavor), in the ham-fisted mitts of Lindsay-Hogg, screenwriter Kirby Dick, and star/co-producer D'Onofrio, it plays like an original production by a high school drama class hell-bent on conjuring the double helix spirits of being and nothingness. At least the filmmakers succeed on that second score.

For an elegant and wholly inspired examination of the intersection where life meets art, check out Iranian writer/director Mohsen Makhmalbaf's lyrical Gabbeh (Saturday at 2:00 p.m.). The film opens with an elderly Iranian married couple bickering about who will wash their gabbeh, a colorful, one-of-a-kind Persian carpet woven to depict a story told by its maker. The woman (Roghieh Moharami) wins out, and as she kneads the carpet barefoot in clear running water, a lovely young woman named Gabbeh (Shaghayegh Djodat), dressed exactly like the old woman, suddenly materializes out of the ether.

Gabbeh tells the pair that she wove the gabbeh; urged on by the old man (Hossein Moharami) and old woman, she relates its tale, the story of her large nomadic family -- father, mother, schoolteacher uncle, and many brothers and sisters -- and her frustrated attempts to connect with her suitor, a horseman who follows behind them alone at a discreet distance as they move hither and yon across the dramatic Iranian countryside. Gabbeh's stolid father has sworn to kill the pair if they elope, and he keeps delaying their union by imposing a seemingly never-ending series of arbitrary conditions: His brother -- Gabbeh's uncle (Abbas Sayahi) -- must return from the city; then the uncle must marry; then Gabbeh's mother must give birth; and so on and so on.

Makhmalbaf presents these events in crisp flashback with Gabbeh acting as voice-over narrator, returning only intermittently, and briefly, to Gabbeh and the old couple in the present. But he unspools his film not as a linear narrative but rather as a magic-realist fable, adroitly intercutting closeups of gabbehs being woven by the women of Gabbeh's family with important events in their peripatetic lives: marriage (the uncle's), death (one of Gabbeh's younger sisters), birth (of a lamb, of a child), escape (Gabbeh and her howling-wolf horseman paramour). And he consistently assaults the eye with brilliant colors, which burst from clothing, from fields of flowers used to make dyes for gabbehs, from the gabbehs themselves, from skies, sun, the various landscapes, and, in some amazingly evocative surrealistic moments, from various pure colors that coat the hands of the uncle. At one point the few speaking characters -- Gabbeh, the uncle, a chorus of children -- proclaim consecutively, in verselike fashion, "Life is color, love is color, man is color, woman is color, child is color," before Gabbeh intercedes with an anguished "Love is pain."

Makhmalbaf has created a simple, gorgeous, filmic tone poem that resonates with magic and metaphor while unsentimentally celebrating the essential components of life, love, and art. Rich and rewarding and visually stunning.

Perhaps once a decade -- sometimes less frequently -- an oldster romance wends its way to the nation's movie screens, supplanting, if only for a nanosecond, the cavorting and cooing of the young and the restless and the pulchritudinous. Tracy and Hepburn. Hepburn and Fonda. Tandy and Cronyn. Nicholson and MacLaine (reprising their Terms of Endearment roles in The Evening Star, though neither seems ready for permanent consignment to the cinematic Geritol gulag). This year's fest includes a new entry in the December-December genre, the occasionally charming but relentlessly saccharine Argentinean soaper Sol de Otono (Autumn Sun) (Sunday at 4:30 p.m.).

Tasteful fabric-store accountant Clara Goldstein (Norma Aleandro) meets distinguished-looking, if somewhat less outwardly tasteful, picture framer Raul Ferraro (Federico Luppi) for tea in a tasteful restaurant after she places a tasteful romance classified in a Buenos Aires newspaper. She has a pet turtle, watches Bogart movies on TV, and rehearses for a bit part in a stage musical; he has a doddering old dog and makes nice with Wilson, the grandson of his buddy Palomino. Anyway, her ad specifies she wants a Jewish man, so he shows up for their initial meeting as "Saul Levin." She sees through his pretense immediately and gives him the gate. Of course, she's running a ruse, too, interested only in finding someone suitable to act out the role of "Jack Kleinman," the Jewish boyfriend she has invented in order to put on a dog-and-pony show for her snoopy brother Jaime, who's due to visit from Boston in a month; Clara doesn't want romance, just a warm, older-male Jewish body. With the clock ticking and no prospective Jack materializing, she contacts Raul in the hope that he'll agree to play the role despite the fact that he isn't Jewish. Nice guy that he is, he says okay. She offers money. He declines. She relents and proposes to pay him a small fee if they successfully fool Jaime. He says, "Aw, shucks."

You know the rest. As she gives him a crash course in Jewish customs and food and Yiddish phrases, he falls for her. She takes him to a temple and a cemetery, then shows him old snapshots of her family; he embraces her and plants a big wet one on her mouth. He wants to be more than her pretend boyfriend; she remains cordial but insists they stick to their deal. Well, at least on the surface she does, because writer-director Eduardo Mignogna shoehorns in a couple of mini fantasy sequences wherein Clara casts Raul as her knight in shining armor, just in case you haven't noticed that beneath that cool exterior she really loves him, too.

Along the way Mignogna also tosses in a gratuitous subplot about Palomino's wayward street-punk older grandson Nelson, introduces an eleventh-hour big-ticket disease, and saddles the perfect Clara with a car that breaks down every other day (that's a funny part, by the way). He also bathes everything in sepia tones, in the unlikely event you've forgotten that his film pertains to two folks in their later years. Brown clothes. Brown car. Brown furniture. Brown exteriors. Brown interiors. Not forgetting the tinkly piano music that swells up at appropriately poignant moments. And he relies on the threadbare device of an out-of-nowhere voice-over intro and outro -- in this case a radio-show host spouting Hallmark philosophy ("There are no winners or losers in this town -- just survivors") -- to bookend his film, in an effort to thwack you over the head with his "theme."

Yes, it's nice to see two older folks falling in love on-screen, but Sol de Otono will scorch the cockles of your heart so much that you may sustain a third-degree burn.

In its blurb for La Promesse (Saturday at 4:30 p.m.), the unremittingly gritty story of a fifteen-year-old boy caught between divided loyalties, the Film Society of Miami coyly alludes to Francois Truffaut's 1959 The 400 Blows, which also featured a confused boy as its protagonist. But La Promesse, written, directed, and edited by Belgian brother filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, looks and feels much less like French new wave cinema than like the powerful, fatalistic neorealist films of postwar Italy, notably Vittorio De Sica's The Bicycle Thief and, especially, Roberto Rossellini's Germany Year Zero.

Blond, boyishly handsome Igor (Jeremie Renier) works as an assistant auto mechanic in an unnamed Belgian city -- that is, when his father Roger (Olivier Gourmet) doesn't spirit him away to help run a lucrative business trafficking in illegal aliens. A lumpen hustler, Roger extracts money for a variety of services rendered from a Benetton-like smorgasbord of illegals: Yugoslavs, Romanians, Koreans, Kurds. Money for residence papers, money for rent to live in his ramshackle building, money for this, money for that. In return he pays them to work on the building they all live in, Roger and Igor included. Igor collects cash from the immigrants, doles out forged papers, and, in general, blithely carries out his dad's orders. Roger's operation has already catapulted the kid more than halfway out of adolescence, although he still loves to whiz around the neighborhood on a nifty go-cart he built with two chums.

The latest batch of illegals to arrive includes Assita (Assita Ouedraogo), the wife of Hamidou (Rasmane Ouedraogo), who immigrated to Belgium from Burkina Faso in West Africa not long before she did; she has brought along their infant son, and the trio settles in together. Soon thereafter labor inspectors show up at the building's work site, and Igor and Roger hurriedly shoo away their multi-culti crew. In the midst of the mayhem, Hamidou accidentally tumbles from some scaffolding. Igor rushes to his aid. Barely able to speak, Hamidou makes Igor promise that, should he not pull through, Igor will look after his wife and child. The boy numbly agrees, then beseeches his father to get Hamidou to a hospital. But with the inspectors headed their way and discovery of his setup imminent, Roger quickly covers Hamidou with a tarp and an unattached door, guaranteeing the man's death. When the inspectors leave, Roger and a reluctant Igor bury Hamidou behind the building. Later that night Igor washes away some of Hamidou's blood from his ankle, but it soon becomes obvious that he can't rinse away the incident -- or his promise -- quite so easily.

Thus begins the slow process by which Igor pulls away from his father (who insists the boy call him Roger, not Dad -- the filmmakers make no mention of Igor's mother), whom he loves and admires, sentiments firmly established in a winsome scene in which the pair sings together on-stage at a bar's open-mike night. As Roger works hard to deceive Assita about Hamidou's whereabouts -- telling her he has fled in order to escape two menacing brothers who are trying to collect on a hefty gambling debt -- Igor helps her in ways both little (fixing her room's heater) and big (giving her money), attempting to live up to his pledge while simultaneously helping Roger maintain his fiction. That conflict percolates and percolates, culminating in a dramatic familial rupture when Roger convinces Assita that Hamidou is waiting for her in nearby Cologne, when in truth he wants to sell her off as a whore. Igor steps in, commandeers Roger's van, and whisks Assita and the baby away to hide out in his boss's vacant-for-the-weekend apartment.

Much subtle agonizing ensues: Should Igor completely break with Roger and tell Assita the truth about Hamidou, or should he merely help her escape his father's clutches while keeping mum about the death? Renier effectively registers Igor's moral dilemmas while scarcely moving a facial muscle; for that matter, the whole cast (made up, in the neorealist tradition, exclusively of unknowns and nonprofessionals) performs admirably.

The Dardenne brothers have shot their tightly observed meditation on the nature of loyalty and betrayal in a flat, unpretentious fashion: the footage almost grainy, the soundtrack completely ambient, the urbanscape gray and utilitarian. Little color or kindness exists in this mercenary world, with Roger's falling-apart building and the rootlessness/ hopelessness of the exploited illegals serving as telling metaphors for the crushing brutality of this modern world. Troubling, realistic, and unsentimental, La Promesse hums with a quiet human intensity while deftly reanimating a timeless theme.

All screenings take place at the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts (174 E Flagler St). Admission is $7 ($25 on opening night). For a complete schedule of films and seminars, see "Calendar" or call 377-

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