Feast of Film II

The Miami International Film Festival, part two


Childhood memories are part of filmmakers' stock in trade, and many a director has based films on them -- Fellini's Amarcord, Boorman's Hope and Glory, and Tornatore's Cinema Paradiso, to name but three. Alejandro Agresti's Valentin (2002) continues this tradition with the tale of an owlish, bespectacled eight-year-old boy who lives with his troubled, lonely grandmother in Buenos Aires of 1969. Valentin has no parents, at least functionally. His mother ran off years before for undisclosed reasons, while his father, who drops by to visit sporadically, carries on flings with a series of women. To compensate, Valentin befriends several adults -- Rufo, a Bohemian piano teacher; Leticia, one of his father's ex-girlfriends; and others -- all of whom appear as lonely and isolated as he is.

Valentin also finds solace in his imaginary world as a budding space traveler: 1969 was the year of the first moon landing, and he's hoping to grow up to be Argentina's first astronaut. The narrative is from the child's perspective -- adults seem to zoom in and out of his life with little explanation, and their personalities seem to shift as the boy learns more about them.

The kerchief fad is over, but Nicole Kidman carries it 
off in Dogville
The kerchief fad is over, but Nicole Kidman carries it off in Dogville
Valentin doesn't do the decade justice
Valentin doesn't do the decade justice

The boy's father (played by Agresti) comes across at first as an upbeat, ebullient charmer, but soon a really nasty streak emerges, which begins to explain why he can't maintain a romantic relationship and perhaps why his marriage fell apart. The focus on character puts considerable demands on the performances, which fortunately are superior here, especially Carmen Maura (whom many will recall from several Pedro Almodóvar films) as the grandmother, whose contradictory persona looms large in the boy's life. Other standouts include Mex Urtizberea as the romantic, geeky Rufo, and especially Julieta Cardinali as Leticia, who develops an unlikely emotional bond with Valentin. Cardinali's stunning looks work against her at first -- when she makes her first entrance in a miniskirt, all legs and long blond hair, you can't help but think "model." But her acting is full of subtext and honesty, and her scenes with Valentin are the film's best.

As Valentin, young Rodrigo Noya offers a sweet, understated charm in his film debut. Agresti's direction is simple and effective, with a gentle sense of humor amid the pathos, but he fails to fully evoke the late 1960s, which is certainly part of the film's potential appeal. The production details -- the battered, shambling apartments, the costuming choices -- create the period, but the story itself doesn't, either as context or backdrop. Except for the astronaut reference and a single, unnecessary church scene that mentions Che Guevara, there's little sense of the era. But Agresti is ably abetted by cinematographer José Luis Cajaraville's fluid camerawork and expressive lens choices, and Paul M. van Bruggen's dreamlike musical score. This film is a nice fit for the festival, a well-crafted reminiscence that probably would disappear in the bruising, harsher world of commercial movie marketing. -- Ronald Mangravite

Valentin screens at 6:00 p.m. on Sunday, February 8, at the Gusman Centre for the Performing Arts, 174 E Flagler St.

A Letter to True

Judging from the past work of superstar photographer and occasional filmmaker Bruce Weber, it's fairly obvious what the man is into. He likes movie stars from bygone eras, jazz singers, model boys in tighty-whities, Americana, and dogs, especially dogs.

Except for the briefs, everything else listed above can be found in Weber's latest film, A Letter to True. Not quite a documentary in the traditional sense, what with all the montages, homages, and varied subjects, the film is more akin to a nonfiction feature. That's an accurate description since you rarely find documentaries with such stunningly rich cinematography. This is the strength of the film and the key ingredient in creating its elegiac tone, as well as conveying nostalgia for Weber's idea of the all-American life.

The film is set up as a letter from Weber to True, one of his five beloved golden retrievers, and actually starts out with Weber narrating as we watch his disembodied hand write. He follows that with scenes of the pack running around his Montauk, New York, beach home, dogs jumping into swimming pools after balls and dogs playing in the waves. Schmaltzy, yes, but before you can sigh "oh brother" at the thought of 75 minutes of canine cuteness and puppy-dog palaver, the film jumps to a montage of British actor Dirk Bogarde, along with old home movies and intimate stories about his life.

From there we jump to a country farm somewhere in the South, where a pack of redneck boys are having wacky fun jumping into water holes and riding donkeys while their mother narrates. Next we're off to Liz Taylor and scenes from her early film, The Courage of Lassie. It's a pastiche, and yes, there are dogs involved in all these stories, but they're not always center frame. And when the film jumps to a profile of Vietnam War photographer Larry Burrows, a theme starts to emerge, connecting all these dots.

The film is really Weber's post-9/11 reminiscences on all that is good about life in America -- family dogs, classic films and their actors, summer days in the sun -- and also his antiwar statement. We hear Martin Luther King, Jr.'s final speech before his death and a Rainer Maria Rilke poem read by Julie Christie. And then there's the stellar soundtrack, with songs that run from Doris Day to Thelonious Monk to Phil Ochs to Ry Cooder.

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