Fest Full of Film

The FIU Seventeenth Miami Film Festival

After a light lead with Bossa Nova, this week the FIU Miami Film Festival comes to an end on a heavier note with the French screen version of Stalin's world, East-West. The big French offering in this second half is Battle Cries, the story of a pregnant woman with breast cancer that first previewed last year at Cannes. Although no Chinese films are screened this year, two interesting Asian samplers are offered: Kikujiro from Japanese director Takeshi Kitano, and out from under the rising suns and dragons, a South Korean entry, Nowhere to Hide (apparently making Hong Kong's films seem slow). Mifune is not Asian but Danish, a 1999 Silver Bear winner from the Berlinale. The highly touted Bhutanese film about soccer-happy teenage boys in a monastery in the Himalayas, The Cup, sweetens the week, as does the Mario Vargas Llosa adaptation from Peru, Captain Pantoja and the Special Service. The other Latin-American representative this week comes from the other side of the straits: a Cuban film -- actually from Cuba -- called Life Is to Whistle. The special events continue, including the Commedia all'italiana retrospective of postwar Italian work, panels and discussions, and visits from filmmakers, like the one last week from Eric Mendelsohn, whose take on his film Judy Berlin follows. For more information about the festival see "Calendar Events" or call 305-372-0925.

Dark, scary, and oppressive sum up East-West, a film about the Soviet Union under Stalin and his iron-fisted regime. For many in South Florida, the film may seem even darker. In 1946 Stalin called on all Russian citizens living in exile to return to the motherland. Many of them, weighed down by nostalgia and the difficulties of life in a strange land, decided to go back, carrying with them the idealistic dream of creating a new Russia where the people's will could be stronger than the regime's.

Directed by Academy Award winner Régis Wargnier, East-West focuses on the family of Alexei (Oleg Menchikov), a Russian doctor living in France who decides to go back with his wife, Marie (Sandrine Bonnaire), and their son, Serioja (Serguei Bodrov). Once in the U.S.S.R., however, they become aware that it's too late to correct their mistake; they can't turn back, and they have to choose between adapting to a new, horrible life or facing the more horrible fate of being executed as traitors.

Witnesses to Stalin's iron fist
Witnesses to Stalin's iron fist
Soccer madness hits the Himalayas
Soccer madness hits the Himalayas

From the first scenes when the family arrives in Odessa and a Russian official destroys Marie's French passport, accusing her of being a spy, to when the old lady at the collective house is denounced and arrested for speaking French (a foreign language) with her new neighbor, it's predictable what this family's ordeal will be. Alexei and Marie's lives are torn apart. The oppressive system under which they live doesn't allow them space for privacy. Constantly being watched, even by a best friend or a close relative, they live in an atmosphere of silence, fear, and double morality.

While Alexei conforms, eventually choosing opportunism to survive, Marie struggles to recover her freedom and manages to tell her calamitous situation to a famous French actress (Catherine Deneuve) who is visiting the city. In the meantime Marie finds a companion in Sacha, a young swimmer who thinks winning a European championship is his only chance to escape to the West. For Marie and Sacha, the only way to find freedom is to gain time and the government's confidence. Sacha ultimately manages to escape the U.S.S.R. but, despite his attempts to save Marie, she is send to a gulag.

Wargnier is capable of re-creating the Russian spirit through a curious combination of traditional Soviet film and a sharp narrative with naked, merciless speech. This allows events to flow smoothly, enriching the plot to the extent that it pulls the spectator into the darkness of a real nightmare. The period reconstruction is subtle and meticulous, and its realistic approach avoids any overdone stylistic effects.

East-West has a powerful cast. Menchikov gives a brilliant performance, though he doesn't speak a word of French and had to learn his lines phonetically. In Nikita Mikhalkov's Oscar-winning film Burnt by the Sun, Menchikov played Dimitri, the dark and hideous Stalinist spy who returns with a vengeance. We remember Bonnaire as the dysfunctional young woman who chooses freedom in Agnes Varda's Sans Toit Ni Loi (Without Roof or Rule). And completing this highly professional cast is Deneuve who, since The Umbrellas of Cherbourg to her Cesar for Best Actress in Wargnier's own Indochine, could be considered Our Lady of French cinema.

This movie is based on actual interviews with survivors of this experience. The film goes beyond a portrait of daily life under Stalin's U.S.S.R.; it is an astonishing exposure of the totalitarian system, where brutality and the deepest scorn for human nature are not exclusive to the Stalin era, but are representative of the system itself. East-West is, however, more than a film about a political system. It is a horror film that keeps you nailed to your seat with a noose around your neck, yet also makes you feel relief for not being there. -- Sergio Giral

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