Miami International Film Festival

2002 Week two: Cuba, Spain, Iceland, Poland, U.S.A., and more

The 2003 Miami International Film Festival is in full swing, with four nights remaining for the marathon run of features, documentaries, and shorts from all over the world. Tonight, however, is the last night to experience "Beachstock," the series of free screenings on the beach at Nikki Beach: Victor/Victoria, a comedy about cross-dressing and gender confusion, will run for two showings. On Saturday at the Regal South Beach Cinema, the not-so-lighthearted U.S. documentary premiere Pandemic: Facing AIDS will be followed by a moderated discussion with activists, policymakers, and filmmakers regarding child sex trafficking and AIDS. Limited tickets will also be available for the wrap-up awards night (starting at 7:00 p.m.), which includes the awards ceremony, screening of Jet Lag, and the closing-night street party outside the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts. Sunday, however, will still afford a final chance to soak up some of the festival's finest fare. (The festival's hotline is 305-348-5555.)

Nada Más Directed by Juan Carlos Cremata Malberti; Cuba, 2002

Juan Carlos Cremata Malberti's debut film is a surrealistic metaphor of contemporary Cuba. A highly stylized look at the question of whether to stay on the island or emigrate if given the chance, it is essentially a meditation on the values of human relationships versus material things.

The Sea: A contemporary King Lear with too many subplots
The Sea: A contemporary King Lear with too many subplots
Washington Heights: Urban Latin life is more than drug deals, but not here
Washington Heights: Urban Latin life is more than drug deals, but not here
Washington Heights: Urban Latin life is more than drug deals, but not here
Washington Heights: Urban Latin life is more than drug deals, but not here

Carla (Thais Valdés) lives alone in a big apartment with a sweeping view of Havana, left to her when her parents moved to Miami. Waiting to find out if her number comes up in the U.S. government lottery to be granted a visa, she is encouraged by her mother, who sends frequent postcards bearing pictures of fat ladies on South Beach. Carla works stamping letters at the post office. She lives in a vacuum, with no friends and virtually no contact with her fellow workers. Her life, like that of those she observes around her, is nada (nothing).

Quite by accident Carla begins reading the letters in her charge, and she decides to answer them. Taking on the identities of the letter writers and their recipients, she becomes obsessed with bringing happiness to their lives. She rewrites a bitchy daughter's hasty note to her father boasting of her comfortable life in Spain, replacing it with a loving missive from afar. She takes an insulting diatribe to a bumbling TV commentator and makes it into a poetic fan letter. And so on. Carla resembles a more jaded Amélie as she becomes obsessed with helping people. Her own life is enriched when she realizes her small gestures can really make things better all around her, and when she ends up winning the visa lottery she is faced with a serious spiritual quandary.

Nada Más is by design an art film, meticulously shot in black and white and painted with symbolic splashes of color. Cremata is a neotropical Fellini who parades curious Cuban characters before us throughout the film and provides visual stimulation through hyper-styling of every outfit and interior. The movie's slow pace captures the sultry rhythm of Cuba. Like Buñuel and Almodovar, whose early films Nada Más recalls, Cremata is a socially critical fantasist with an artist's eye. -- Judy Cantor

Playing on Wednesday, February 26, at 7:30 p.m. and Friday, February 28, at 10:00 p.m. at the Regal South Beach Cinema, 1100 Lincoln Rd, Miami Beach; 305-674-6766.

The Sea Directed by Baltasar Kormákur; Iceland, 2002

You may not think about it much, but the long-lost Viking culture still echoes today. Take the words "saga" and "berserk." Both are still in English usage and both are purely Viking in origin. Both also come to mind when watching Baltasar Kormákur's Icelandic drama The Sea, a tale of one family's descent from prosperity toward utter destruction.

The setting is a small fishing village on the Icelandic coast, where aging patriarch Thordur reigns over his family's fish-processing company, the town's main livelihood, as he has done for decades. But the modern world has come to traditional Iceland. The fisher folk are abandoning their boats and moving to the cities. Lacking workers, the remaining companies must resort to despised Asian immigrants for labor. At the same time, huge corporations encroach on the established family businesses.

Thordur's eldest son Haraldur, who runs the day-to-day operations, knows their enterprise is doomed and insists the family sell out to a conglomerate. Embittered daughter Ragnheiour also wants out. But Thordur holds fast and calls together his family for a mysterious announcement. His youngest son, Agust, who lives in Paris with his lovely fiancée Françoise, doesn't want to return home and doesn't want her to go either, but he won't say why. In the end they do attend the family gathering. At an awkward dinner party Thordur unloads his plan: He has cut off his children from any further monetary support in order to reserve funds in an effort to keep the business going. He also plans to tap Agust as its new chief. The family is aghast and all immediately begin making plans to thwart Thordur.

This contemporary King Lear, which switches between the Icelandic and English languages, gets off to a portentous, compelling start. Cinematographer Jean-Louis Vialard captures the beauty and isolation of the landscape while director Kormákur draws some fiery performances from his ensemble cast. These Vikings are as gorgeous and as desolate as their countryside.

But Kormákur's script suffers from overloaded subplots and high-voltage confrontations. Thordur carries a decades-long grudge against a rival fisherman. The children resent Thordur's wife Kristin, their mother's sister who quickly married Thordur when her sister died. They are especially resentful as they know that Thordur and Kristin were having sex while their mother was on her deathbed. Kristin's daughter by Thordur, Maria, who was conceived during that tryst, has a lifelong incestuous passion for Agust, the reason for his reluctance to return home with Françoise. Agust resists Maria's attentions for a time but after a while these cousins get to more than kissing.

Haraldur plots to have his father declared mentally unfit. Meanwhile his wife gets it on with their banker, who is in league with her underhanded efforts to bilk the company. In one of several other subplots, Ragnheiour's hopped-up son goes berserk, spray-painting graffiti on his father's car and breaking into a fast-food joint to play video games.

Why Kormákur chose to pursue so many subplots is anyone's guess, but the film's effectiveness is undercut by this lack of focus. Nevertheless, The Sea is an engagingly fast-paced tale and its political take -- that corporate globalism (read: American culture) is destroying Icelandic identity -- is intriguing and vividly depicted. -- Ronald Mangravite

Playing on Thursday, February 27, 10:00 p.m. at the Regal South Beach Cinema.

Washington Heights Directed by Alfredo de Villa; U.S.A., 2002

First a little historical perspective: Washington Heights is an English-language feature film about the life of urban Latinos made and soon to be commercially released in the U.S. by a cast and crew composed largely of Latin-American immigrants. Latinos may finally be crossing the border into commercial gringo cinema after all. In the process Washington Heights almost escapes depicting urban Latino life as defined exclusively by deadly drug deals, as in Martin Scorsese's 1973 Mean Streets, in which Robert De Niro plays a Puerto Rican drug dealer; and Brian De Palma's 1983 Scarface, in which Al Pacino plays a Cuban drug dealer. Almost.

Not that it would necessarily be a bad thing for Mexican-born director Alfredo de Villa to come off in his first feature like Scorsese or De Palma, but that's not really what his film is about. At first you think you're watching a compelling family drama about upwardly mobile comic-book artist Carlos (Dominican-born Manny Perez of A&E's legal drama 100 Centre Street), who puts his career on hold to take over the family bodega after his charming, philandering father Eddie (Cuban-born Miami resident Tomas Milian, whom you might recognize from Traffic) is paralyzed in a holdup. But then suddenly there's a half-baked heist that ends with a goofy white guy getting knifed by a hotheaded friend of the family, played by Italian-American Bobby Cannavale. (Okay, so only Cannavale's dad is Italian; his mom is Cuban and he was raised in Puerto Rico, New Jersey, and Florida -- there's still no reason for his character to be there.)

What does Carlos do when he finds himself taking on papi's role as Latin lover? How does his long-time girl from the block deal with his sexy new female boss downtown? How does his dad survive in the hood when his son moves up and out? We'll never find out. The fact that these questions are raised at all is probably due to the "additional writing" credited to the Dominican-born, Jersey-bred bard of immigrant life, Junot Diaz.

The everyday dilemmas posed in Diaz's acclaimed short story collection Drown are infinitely more fascinating than the familiar drug drama that closes in here and that was previewed in de Villa's short film Neto's Run, for which the director also shares writing credits with his Heights co-writer, Nat Moss. Maybe in the next film Diaz can do all the writing.

And maybe in the next film select some different music. The multinational cast and crew (Mexican, Dominican, Cuban, Puerto Rican) theoretically could make for a fascinating pan-Latin look, sound, and feel, but the Cuban music blasting through Washington Heights is confusing as hell. There's a snatch here and there of Heights natives Fulanito doing the group's hit "La Novela," but otherwise at critical moments we find Eddie listening on his headphones to Celia Cruz and later to crooner Bola de Nieve. He also calls for his assistant in the bodega to do a little number by Beny Moré.

In the abstract, there's no music better than Celia, Bola de Nieve, and Beny, and no reason why non-Cubans can't listen to them. But for a movie about Dominicans in the Heights, why not strike a deal with J&R Records, the Dominican powerhouse that originated in that neighborhood, and hit us with some heartfelt merengue or bachata?

But then again, the fact that we now have a diverse enough set of viable Latino moviemakers for a critic to quibble over whether a film should have more Oedipal drama or more gunplay, and whether the soundtrack should feature more Cuban or Dominican music in an American movie, is something of a triumph in itself. -- Celeste Fraser Delgado

Playing on Friday, February 28, at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, March 1, at 11:00 a.m. at the Regal South Beach Cinema.

Lugares Comunes Directed by Adolfo Aristaráin; Argentina, 2002

A number of profound ideas are woven through a simple story in Adolfo Aristaráin's Lugares Comunes. In Buenos Aires a white-haired, left-wing professor, Fernando Robles, works with his students, all educators-in-training, and charges them with high ideals: "Awaken in your students the pain of lucidity." Life may be an exhilarating journey of discovery, but it is also cruel, as Robles can testify from recent experience. Moments earlier he was called into the office of his superior and summarily dismissed from his post owing to the ongoing Argentine economic crisis, which has struck the university. With millions of younger people also out of work, his firing effectively means the end of his career.

Robles keeps the news a secret but his beloved wife Liliana quickly notices his sudden change of mood and the truth is revealed. He resumes smoking, despite his emphysema, and knocks back double whiskeys while he continues to work on his writing. She's worried about his health but hopes their upcoming trip to visit their son Carlos in Madrid will ease his mind. Once there, Carlos offers a plan: He will bring his parents to live in Spain and offers to subsidize them. He's a prosperous computer entrepreneur, though he was once a struggling writer who tired of driving a cab to support his art. But Robles, who fiercely guards his personal integrity, rejects the offer in a fury. He's livid that Carlos abandoned his artistic calling merely for the money of a job he hates.

The parents return to Argentina and the rift with Carlos is patched up, but soon the reality of their predicament hits home. They must sell their flat for a less expensive farm in the countryside. Robles moves to the farm with some reluctance, but he carries his ideals with him. He refuses to be treated with deference by the caretaker's family. He raises the caretaker's salary and gives him title to his little house. He calls the farm "1789" in honor of the French Revolution. "It called for liberty, equality, and fraternity," Robles intones. "I intend to implement it." He begins to shape his grand vision, but time is running out.

Aristaráin directs with a simple assurance, wisely choosing to let his veteran cast take the focus. The ensemble -- Arturo Puig as Carlos, Carlos Santamaría as Robles's friend and lawyer Pedro, and especially Mercedes Sampietro as Liliana -- couldn't be better. Federico Luppi as Robles is nothing short of superb, capturing the character's gruff, no-nonsense demeanor that masks a profoundly romantic, heroic soul, "a walking tango, sentimental and corny."

Lugares Comunes takes the very topical tale of one couple's struggle with the economic crisis in their country and uses it as the basis for exploration of deeper questions. How does one face aging with dignity? To what extent should a person stifle personal beliefs in order to succeed in the working world? Is survival a better measure of success than living fully even for one moment? Such important questions give this quiet film significant resonance and depth. It compares well, in tone and filmmaking craft, to some of Akira Kurosawa's Ikiruand Drunken Angel, which are also character studies set in contexts of personal and social upheaval. Like those classics, Lugares Comunes is a thoughtful, very adult film. -- Ronald Mangravite

Playing on Friday, February 28, at 7:00 p.m. at the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts, 174 E Flagler St, 305-374-2444; on Saturday, March 1, 7:00 p.m. at Sunrise Cinemas Intracoastal, 3701 NE 163rd St, North Miami Beach, 305-949-0064.

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