MIFF 2016: Miami Filmmaker Monica Peña Explores Life and Love in Hearts of Palm

Hearts of Palm, world-premiering at the Miami International Film Festival this week, sorrowfully repeats the phrase "El la amaba y ella lo amaba" ("He loved her and she loved him"). The repetition emphasizes what audiences know from the moment the movie begins: filmmaker Monica Peña is telling a story about a stagnant relationship that’s falling to pieces.

The premise may sound trite, but Hearts of Palm is far from typical. Peña, a Miami local, is a genius of experimentation. Take, for instance, her casting: Megan Galizia and Brad Lovett play the lovers, while fellow Miami filmmaker, actor, and certified wacko Julian Yuri Rodriguez plays a skin-crawlingly creepy character. Lovett also composed the score, but the music often gets lost in all the silence.

The film uses onscreen text as commentary. The words are reminiscent of Mark Z. Danielewski's novel House of Leaves, a similarly surreal work about a relationship in turmoil. Jean-Luc Godard, a filmmaker whom Peña mentions in Hearts of Palm, is a great point of reference for how the film experiments with text, which plays against the images onscreen. Cinematographer J.L. Rubiera works wonders with his intimate handheld camera.

Peña also experiments by splitting the story into chapters and intertwining mysticism and nature in her characters.

The film is overwhelmingly sincere. Take, for instance, these bits from the onscreen text: "I wrote a monologue. It's not very good" and "I'm just a heartbroken girl from Miami."

Peña's honesty and earnestness are intriguing to watch. Hearts of Palm is a dive into the kind of art that Miami should be racing to explore. Yes, this film is weird and personal, but that's what makes it fascinating.

Hearts of Palm
Starring Megan Galizia, Brad Lovett, Eloisa Garcia, Julian Yuri Rodriguez. Directed by Monica Peña. 71 minutes. Not rated. Screens at 9:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 9, and 4:30 p.m. Sunday, March 13, at Regal Cinemas South Beach 18 & IMAX, 1120 Lincoln Rd., Miami Beach. Tickets cost $13 via miamifilmfestival.com.

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