Film en Español

This year's festival has lots to offer from lots of Latin countries, though generally on the light side

This very expansive Miami Latin Film Festival was once two: the French Hispanic and the Miami Hispanic film festivals, which this year morphed into one, headed by Jaime Angulo. Running from March 22 to 31 at the Regal South Beach cinema, the festival's 38 films seem to cover the spectrum of most "Latin" countries you can think of, from Portugal to Mexico, France and Italy to Chile. In fact there is a heavy emphasis on Spanish film and very little from the Caribbean; two are about Latins in America (reviewed below), and one is a quadruple production that includes Belgium and Cuba in its credits. Whatever, the list is still impressive: one from Peru; a couple from Venezuela, Brazil, Colombia, and Italy; four from Argentina; and eight from Mexico. Of the last, four are part of a Mexican retrospective, all of which will be playing on Sunday, March 31.

The week also contains a number of award winners: two Argentine action films focusing on ex-cons, Rosarigasinos and The Escape; a Galician film about poverty in a small village, Lena; the Brazilian Netto Loses His Soul, about a general and his reminiscences of past wars and loves; Too Much Love out of Mexico, centering on a woman who planned to emigrate but learns to love herself and her country; and two big international winners, Tricky Life (reviewed below) and A House With a View of the Sea,a solitary tale of life, often violent and destitute, in the Andes.

Missed that 7:00 showing? No matter -- one highlight is that all films show at least four times in one day. For more information about times, dates, and accompanying programming, go to www.hispanicfilm.com.

Turning tricks in Barcelona is one way a Uruguayan girl can make some money
Turning tricks in Barcelona is one way a Uruguayan girl can make some money
Their mother likes a female pianist, and they don't know if they like it
Their mother likes a female pianist, and they don't know if they like it
She seems to have forgotten Spanish, though she's spoken it all her life!
She seems to have forgotten Spanish, though she's spoken it all her life!
A Honduran illegal takes an improbable trip through non-Anglo America
A Honduran illegal takes an improbable trip through non-Anglo America

Tricky Life

Tricky Life (En la puta vida) tackles serious social criticism with picaresque effect. Consciously tinged with the melodrama, comic timing, and over-the-top styling of a telenovela, first-time director Beatriz Flores Silva's film tells the story, based on real events, of a woman lured into an Uruguayan prostitution ring in Barcelona. Tricky Life, which alludes to government corruption and widespread poverty in Uruguay, is that country's nominee for the Academy Award and has broken domestic box-office records.

At the opening of the film, Elisa, a tough-talking 27-year-old single mother of two boys by different fathers, is swearing a blue streak as her mother throws her out of the family's ramshackle hut into the rain; the older woman is angered that her daughter has pinned her hopes on another no-good man. Elisa's dream is to open a hair salon, and she thinks the sleazy, married owner of a Montevideo cafeteria will help make it come true. He doesn't. Declaring her independence from men, Elisa happily becomes a whore, joining her friend and beauty parlor partner Loulou as one of the girls at a tango bar and bordello. There she falls for Placido, a handsome thug involved in "international business," which as it turns out includes pimping, forgery, and homicide.

Placido takes Elisa and Loulou to Barcelona, where the women plan to make big money fast. They go to work on the street, competing for johns with Brazilian transvestites. Elisa is blinded by a pathetic plan to marry Placido, but eventually realizes he has taken all of her earnings and put her life in danger. With no documentation or cash she is stuck -- an illegal alien in Spain and an unwanted criminal in Uruguay, spurned at the consulate in Barcelona. Elisa turns to a goodhearted (and hot) Spanish cop to help her find a way back home.

The spirited and sexy Argentine actress Mariana Santangelo winningly plays Elisa as a strong, desperate woman struggling to take control of her destiny. Her presence moves the film through more than a few hackneyed scenes and its stagy affectations, and she gustily plays the "whore with a good heart" with a contemporary flair. By the end of the film, when Elisa returns to Montevideo and becomes an unwitting hero, Tricky Life emerges as a wry commentary on South American social ills. -- Judy Cantor

A very different slice of life in contemporary Spain is revealed in My Mother Likes Women (A mi madre le gustan las mujeres), an engaging if derivative romantic comedy with a strong female ensemble cast that entertains as much as an episode of Sex and the City. When Sofia (Rosa Maria Sardá), a concert pianist, announces that she has a girlfriend, the tolerance of her liberal, intellectual family in Madrid is tested. Sofia's writer ex-husband takes the news in stride, reciting from Sappho. But Sofia's three grown daughters are shaken by the news, especially when they learn their mother has given all her money to her lover Eliska (Eliska Sirová), a Czech piano student, so that she can continue her studies in Spain.

The free-spirited youngest daughter, Sol, questions Eliska's intentions but shows her pride in her mother by paying her embarrassing homage in a hilarious song by her pop-punk band. Yuppie sister Gimena (María Pujalte), mortified and confused, is put at odds with her homophobic husband. And Elvira (Leonor Watling), who emerges as the film's central character, reacts as she does to everything, by drinking whiskey and crying. Elvira, neurotic descendant of Annie Hall, is a seductive, intellectual version of Bridget Jones. Like Jones, she is underappreciated and humiliated in her job at a publishing house.

The gamine Watling, who also stars in the new Pedro Almodovar film Hable con Ella, is being heralded as Spain's new sensation. In this case she has the screen appeal to make a potentially annoying character endearing. Elvira's quest to understand her mother's choices leads to her own empowerment and, if not true love, at least a functioning relationship and a book contract. The other sisters similarly find happiness as they too embrace more alternative lifestyles by the end of this predictable, self-consciously kooky but likable salute to the 21st-century family. -- Judy Cantor

The Blue Diner

While Hollywood movies still portray an illegal immigrant nation of drug dealers, housekeepers, and hot hipshakers, independent Latino filmmakers try to figure out another way to fit their communities into the national landscape. In The Blue Diner, writer and producer Natatcha Estébanez presents pan-Latin culture as a panacea for Yankee materialism (and in No Turning Back,below,Spanish jack-of-all-film-trades Jesus Nebot sacrifices the immigrant hero/criminal in order to melt a new generation of Latinos into the U.S. movie mainstream).

Six years in the making, The Blue Diner lovingly portrays the neighborhood surrounding a greasy spoon in Boston where the Cuban owner insists on serving his polyglot patrons the special of the house: cow brains. In the meantime attractive bilingual funeral-home salesgirl Elena (Lisa Vidal) suffers a minor stroke that excises all español from her brain: She can no longer peddle caskets in Spanish, much less understand the poetry recited by her ex-boyfriend, undocumented painter Tito (José Yenque), or fight with her mother Meche (Miriam Colón), the housekeeper who works nights to give her daughter a better life.

Puerto Rican-born Estébanez is a writer for the Boston public television station WGBH, where she met cowriter and director Jan Egleson. The pair stretched WGBH startup money a long way, buying 35mm film stock left over from Titanic at half price. Director of photography Teresa Medina builds a gorgeous color scheme around the blues of the title. What might otherwise have been a rather predictable if charming romantic comedy/family drama is bolstered by the solid performances of the ensemble cast and freshened up by Elena's linguistic loss. Her befuddled looks as she walks through her own neighborhood, unable to understand any of the familiar voices on the street, is emblematic of a nation undergoing a change in language so dramatic that a film shot in Boston requires English subtitles.

Driven by Elena's need to get her Spanish back and embrace the immigrant artist she really loves, the plot follows a long Latin-American tradition that presents the culture south of the border as superior to the crass materialism of gringolandia. -- Celeste Fraser Delgado

No Turning Back

This film is also an allegory for the changing demographics of the United States, although perhaps not in the way writer/director/producer/star Jesus Nebot intended. No Turning Back is the first feature from the dashing Spaniard's own Zokalo Entertainment, an independent production company he founded with the motto "Where Hollywood's doors are closed, Zokalo's are open." But don't think that means Zokalo is coming up with new views of the Latin experience. This formulaic cop thriller, conceived by an actor whose biggest English-language credit is a guest turn on NYPD Blue (before coming to the United States he had starring roles in Venezuelan telenovelas), does little to shift the conventions of the genre: The Honduran illegal immigrant Pablo (Nebot) is still the criminal and he is still gunned down by police at the end (sorry, but you will figure out the ending soon enough if you go see the film). The cinematography has all the lyricism of a Matlock rerun and the stock reactions of the racist detective ("My baby brother was gunned down in a Latino drive-by" and yes, even "They all look alike") offer as much cultural insight as a Taco Bell commercial. The plot races from improbable escape to improbable escape until the inevitable demise of the criminal/hero at the end.

What does look a lot different from typical Hollywood is the cast: Apart from a busking midget named Sexy and the dazzlingly blond Anglo family whose six-year-old daughter is killed by the Honduran protagonist in a hit-and-run accident, everyone from the stars to the supporting cast is nonwhite. Pablo and his six-year-old daughter rely on a mixed Korean/German guardian angel/guerrilla journalist to get them across the border before the African-American woman detective and her sensitive Native-American partner catch them. The cruise-line manager who hires Pablo for a trip to Alaska is queer; the cop who mistakes him for a soap opera star is Chicano andqueer. This is what Hollywood would look like if there were an end to Anglo-affirmative action in casting.

But unless you really like formulaic television cop dramas, there's no reason to sit through the succession of unlikely events leading to Pablo's inevitable demise to get to the allegorical payoff. You might have already guessed it from the synopsis above. In the end Pablo's six-year-old Central-American daughter is adopted to replace the six-year-old blond daughter of the Anglo family, and together this new nuclear unit cheerfully visits the illegal immigrant's grave. There may be no turning back, but at least the little brown ones sing along to Britney Spears. How's that for melting pot? -- Celeste Fraser Delgado

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