Screen for Me, Argentina

If you bump into Lucrecia Martel at the Miami International Film Festival, don't ask her about metaphors

Of the homegrown attractions, Bob Rafelson's Five Easy Pieces handily dwarfs the Amer-indie competition, but then it has an unfair advantage. Back in 1970, upon Five Easy Pieces' original release, bucking the studio system was a downright revolutionary concept, not an equally viable career path to moguldom. Rafelson's cast more than rose to the occasion: If you're wondering just how Jack Nicholson became a star, to the point where these days he often slides into his tried-and-tested "Jack" shtick in lieu of acting, here's the celluloid explanation. The man is simply on fire as he portrays an oil-rig worker fleeing his genteel WASP background, yet ultimately as out of sorts in a Texas honky-tonk as in his childhood manor.

Rafelson, in town as one of the festival's judges, should be on hand for a Q&A session following the screening of a restruck print of his classic. There will no doubt be plenty of queries about his glory days amid the early Seventies high-water mark of American cinema (expect to see Kulchur swooning in the front row).

Documentaries are notably strong at the festival: Chilean director Patricio Guzmán has been limning his country's darkest years since a trunkful of his raw footage was spirited out of Santiago in the wake of Augusto Pinochet's 1973 seizure of power. Guzmán's latest, Salvador Allende, is partly a biopic of the socialist president Pinochet deposed and partly a heartfelt memoir of his efforts to make sense of the fractured decades since. With Pinochet now facing trial for the murder of several of Allende's supporters, and with many of Guzmán's interview subjects preparing to testify against the former strongman, Salvador Allende couldn't be more timely.

Lucrecia Martel's new film, The Holy Girl, doesn't quite measure up to her debut, La Cienega
Lucrecia Martel's new film, The Holy Girl, doesn't quite measure up to her debut, La Cienega

Our own ongoing nightmare, Iraq, receives an equally moving treatment in Gunner Palace. Co-directors Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein thankfully eschew the heavy-handed agitprop that has marked most previous attempts to depict the war in Iraq. Instead the pair embed themselves with a U.S. Army unit for the long haul, letting the soldiers themselves do most of the talking.

At least they let the soldiers try to talk. With precious few Arabic translators -- some even turning out to be double agents -- most of the troops are literally unable to communicate with the very people whose lives they're so desperately trying to help rebuild. The result is a series of futile raids alternating with "peacekeeping" duties that seem to consist of little more than driving around, praying a bomb doesn't go off nearby.

Though the narrative flow is far too disjointed, many scenes in Gunner Palace linger memorably. Following a tense town council meeting, a U.S. commander hands one councilwoman a pistol. She's been receiving death threats from insurgents -- not only is she participating in the new provisional government, but adding insult to fundamentalist injury, she's a woman taking on a leadership role. A proffered handgun and an apologetic shrug seem to be about the only real protection American forces can offer those Iraqis earnestly trying to move their nation forward. Watching this woman's subsequent shaky attempts at target practice, with her teacher darting for cover, you don't know whether to laugh or cry.

There's much the same reaction as a frustrated G.I. tries to deploy his own version of winning hearts and minds. Squatting down before a wide-eyed Iraqi child, he pulls out a familiar doll from his backpack. "This is SpongeBob SquarePants," he patiently explains to the spellbound kid. "He's very popular back in the United States."

The Holy Girl screens at the Tower Theater (1508 SW Eighth St., Miami) on Monday, February 7, at 7:00 p.m. and at the Regal South Beach Cinema (1100 Lincoln Rd., Miami Beach) on Thursday, February 10, at 6:45 p.m. For a complete Miami International Film Festival schedule, see www.miamifilmfestival.com.

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