A French Foreign Legion

Just in time for Bastille Day, the consulate general of France in Florida and CocoWalk 16 Theatres are offering the inaugural Franco-Hispanic Film Festival (July 11 through 13; see "Showtimes" or "Calendar Listings" for a complete schedule), whose raison d'etre appears to be to spotlight cinema that's co-produced or co-distributed by French and Hispanic companies. The result is as diverse a cultural and artistic melange as could have been realized if someone actually planned it that way. Like the Brazilian Film Festival earlier this year, this one is an eclectic mix of warmed-over fare -- one film was made almost ten years ago, a couple are middle-aged travelers from early in this decade that have just made their way to our shores, the rest were made in the past two years. But don't let the absence of premieres deter you. (If someone sponsored a festival of screwball comedies from the Thirties and Forties, I'd camp out all night for a ticket.) Eclecticism in itself is not necessarily bad. It's like Forrest Gump's famous box of chocolates. But beware, candy lovers! You have to pick and choose carefully: Some of these delectables are a trifle hard to swallow.

Not so is the choicest (as well as the oldest) film that was available for preview, the Franco-Argentine Sur (South), which won the Cannes Film Festival's prize for best director in 1988 and opened the Miami International Film Festival the following year. Director Fernando Solanas may not belong alongside Bergman and Fellini, but he shows himself to be an adept student of classic films like The Seventh Seal and 81/2, as well as Alain Resnais's masterpiece of surrealism, Last Year at Marienbad.

Actually, in a more high-powered festival with many impressive entries (if such a thing exists any more), Sur might be considered too derivative to merit strong critical acclaim, but in this lineup it stands out. The borrowings from Fellini and Resnais in particular come off with a fair degree of success. Those weary of Hollywood's explosions, car chases, and ear-piercing soundtracks will revel in the moody pace, the camera pans of deserted nighttime streets, the wonderfully lit scenes of old men drinking at sidewalk tables, the fat prostitutes dancing and laughing in hollow celebration, and the gossamer lines of little children at play, appearing and disappearing without warning in a bizarre landscape that Resnais himself might have conceived.

And of course we have the existential hero Floreal (Miguel Angel Sola), a distant relative of the alienated characters Mastroianni used to play in the great Fellini era. He has just been released after five brutal years in a Patagonian prison for resisting a military dictatorship and wonders whether his life is worth returning to, whether anyone's life can, in fact, have any purpose at all. His wife Rosi (Susu Pecoraro) has been unable to remain true during his ordeal and his son is a virtual stranger. In a flashback -- narrated by the ghost of his brother, who reports that "death is just as boring as life" -- we learn that Floreal had once been an idealistic revolutionary, sharing with other workers the dream that the southern half of Argentina can free itself and become a socialist utopia. But the "liberated" prisoner finds that the revolution has also failed, and all he can do is converse with the unhappy ghosts of those who died vainly for the cause or wander the litter-strewn streets of an ugly city as a Fellini-like chorus of ghostly musicians underscores the action with mournful songs. (The music is by the late tango composer Astor Piazzolla.) The best moments in Sur are the most nihilistic; Sola performs with intense caring for the human condition, and we feel his pain. The weakest part of the film is the epiphany, which aspires to the paradoxical joy of the dances-amid-disaster that bring both The Seventh Seal and 81/2 to a glorious close. The script lacks the heartfelt logic and the shimmering poetry of its predecessors. The void has stated its case too strongly.

Nonetheless, Sur should be seen; it's worth much more than a one-showing revival in this festival. If it lacks total originality, it does at least pay homage to a tradition of screen art mostly ignored by Hollywood (except perhaps for a few lukewarm attempts by Woody Allen, who is far better suited for comedy). Derivative, yes, but derived from masters.

The existential angst that swept France following World War II must have reached the shores of Argentina by the time of Sur and then stayed there, for El Viaje (The Journey) is from nearly the same philosophical mold -- not surprising, considering both films were directed by Solanas. El Viaje is far more original than Sur in many respects, though it lacks the poetry and intense focus of the director's earlier work. It is filled with surreal and symbolic elements that really don't suggest earlier films, as though Solanas had in the intervening four years freed himself from his teachers. A number of startling and arresting images will stay with you a long while. When was the last time you saw a film that opened with a shot of snow-encrusted Tierra del Fuego and an insert that identifies the location as "The End of the World"? The pan along the deserted shoreline manages to suggest both the natural beauty of a world abandoned by humanity and the alienation of human beings one from the other. The initial sequence, showing the ridiculous educational system in a Catholic school that is quite literally falling to pieces, is unnerving to watch but serves as a powerful statement of religion's failure to solve human problems.

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