Gianni Versace (Franco Nero) surrounded by babes
Gianni Versace (Franco Nero) surrounded by babes

Big-Screen Cuba

Actor Juan Carlos Diaz knows an opportunity when he sees one. Following the speeches recently given by Cuban-born stars Gloria Estefan and Andy Garcia in front of the home of Lazaro Gonzalez in Little Havana, the Venezuelan actor quickly expressed his "support for Elian," then began plugging his new film, Escape from Cuba. Even as a newscaster attempted to yank away the microphone, Diaz persisted in his plea: "Let Elian stay in the United States, and make sure you go see the movie!"

Escape from Cuba is one of several movies featured at the Hispanic Film Festival that focuses on the controversial island. Running from April 28 through May 7 at several theaters, including the newly restored Tower Art Center on SW Eighth Street, the festival provides an ample survey of Latin celluloid from across the Americas. A few gems shine among the selections (see "Film"), but many of the works offer more sociological than strictly cinematic value. If movies mirror society, the Hispanic Film Festival gives a fascinating look at how we are seen by others and how we see ourselves.

The image projected in Escape from Cuba is a little scary -- and not just because it purports to tell the true story of brutal repression under Castro. Shrilly dogmatic, this action flick written by Robert Adamski, directed by Tom Logan, and filmed on location in Havana is painful to watch, so demeaning is its portrayal of Cubans on both sides of the ideological divide.


The Hispanic Film Festival

Runs from Friday, April 28, through Sunday, May 7, at various locations.

Tickets cost $7 and $100. Call 305-279-1809.

Eminently more watchable is the updated Miami Vice episode Price of Greed, directed by Chris Kas. A cast of neighbors and a soundtrack featuring local acts the Baboons and Nil Lara lend hometown interest to this otherwise straight-to-video action flick. Island politics do no more here then set the stage for a showdown between a soul-searching criminal and the French hit woman hot on the trail of a cache of diamonds.

The psychological drama Café y Tabaco presents political intrigue as the backdrop against which Cuban Americans, ranging from a loony gun-toting exile to a young man teaching his family to accept his sexuality, carve out their identity in the United States. The script by Miami local Michael Justiz, who also directed and produced the film, too often has the characters talking issues to death in jangling metaphors. But a stellar cast that includes Miami residents Emiliano Diaz, Marta Velasco, Manny Suarez, Enrique Mariano, and Manolo Villanueva does its best with the dialogue. The brief appearance of local restaurateur Shareef Malnik as a hallucinating cokehead is worth the price of admission.

Roots provide the fodder for Cuban-American-theme films set in the northeastern United States. Things I Forgot to Remember, written and directed by Spanish immigrant Enrique Oliver, attempts to turn Cuban-American clichés, like the fervently religious abuela and the Castro-obsessed father, into John Waters-esque kitsch, but fails. The big joke here is that the wacky mom thinks "Thanksgiving" is the feast day for the American saint "San Givin." Yuk, yuk.

Rum and Coke, written and directed by Maria Escobedo, pulls off formulaic light comedy with greater success. With Cuban identity collapsed into salsa dancing and candle-lit romance, this story of a hunky immigrant firefighter (Juan Carlos Hernandez) who rescues a career girl (Diana Marquis) from assimilation could just as easily be about immigrants from any other Caribbean nation.

Roots run in the opposite direction in Cuarteto de la Habana, when a young man raised in Spain returns to the Cuba in search of his mother and a recording contract. Spanish director Fernando Colomo says he intended the comedy as a testament to the Cuban people's capacity to survive hardship with a smile; however, the script's use of the economic desperation suffered during the "special period" of the early Nineties as the pretext for farce strains the laughter. An excellent performance by Marta Ibarra begs comparison with 1994's Guantanamera!, whose wicked humor condemned rather than evaded Cuba's harsh realities.

If Elian-mania already has given you more than your share of Cuban drama, and you're waxing nostalgic over Miami media circuses of years past, you can check out your friends and neighbors in The Versace Murder. With all the hallmarks of a cult classic, this melodrama starring Franco Nero and Steven Bauer paints a sordid picture of the underworld of gay hustlers and mass murderers with the cool vision of Reefer Madness. Is director Menahem Golan serious? In a trailer as amusing as the film itself, he swears he is.


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