A French Foreign Legion

Just in time for Bastille Day, the consulate general of France in Florida and CocoWalk 16 Theatres are offering the inaugural Franco-Hispanic Film Festival (July 11 through 13; see "Showtimes" or "Calendar Listings" for a complete schedule), whose raison d'etre appears to be to spotlight cinema that's co-produced or co-distributed by French and Hispanic companies. The result is as diverse a cultural and artistic melange as could have been realized if someone actually planned it that way. Like the Brazilian Film Festival earlier this year, this one is an eclectic mix of warmed-over fare -- one film was made almost ten years ago, a couple are middle-aged travelers from early in this decade that have just made their way to our shores, the rest were made in the past two years. But don't let the absence of premieres deter you. (If someone sponsored a festival of screwball comedies from the Thirties and Forties, I'd camp out all night for a ticket.) Eclecticism in itself is not necessarily bad. It's like Forrest Gump's famous box of chocolates. But beware, candy lovers! You have to pick and choose carefully: Some of these delectables are a trifle hard to swallow.

Not so is the choicest (as well as the oldest) film that was available for preview, the Franco-Argentine Sur (South), which won the Cannes Film Festival's prize for best director in 1988 and opened the Miami International Film Festival the following year. Director Fernando Solanas may not belong alongside Bergman and Fellini, but he shows himself to be an adept student of classic films like The Seventh Seal and 81/2, as well as Alain Resnais's masterpiece of surrealism, Last Year at Marienbad.

Actually, in a more high-powered festival with many impressive entries (if such a thing exists any more), Sur might be considered too derivative to merit strong critical acclaim, but in this lineup it stands out. The borrowings from Fellini and Resnais in particular come off with a fair degree of success. Those weary of Hollywood's explosions, car chases, and ear-piercing soundtracks will revel in the moody pace, the camera pans of deserted nighttime streets, the wonderfully lit scenes of old men drinking at sidewalk tables, the fat prostitutes dancing and laughing in hollow celebration, and the gossamer lines of little children at play, appearing and disappearing without warning in a bizarre landscape that Resnais himself might have conceived.

And of course we have the existential hero Floreal (Miguel Angel Sola), a distant relative of the alienated characters Mastroianni used to play in the great Fellini era. He has just been released after five brutal years in a Patagonian prison for resisting a military dictatorship and wonders whether his life is worth returning to, whether anyone's life can, in fact, have any purpose at all. His wife Rosi (Susu Pecoraro) has been unable to remain true during his ordeal and his son is a virtual stranger. In a flashback -- narrated by the ghost of his brother, who reports that "death is just as boring as life" -- we learn that Floreal had once been an idealistic revolutionary, sharing with other workers the dream that the southern half of Argentina can free itself and become a socialist utopia. But the "liberated" prisoner finds that the revolution has also failed, and all he can do is converse with the unhappy ghosts of those who died vainly for the cause or wander the litter-strewn streets of an ugly city as a Fellini-like chorus of ghostly musicians underscores the action with mournful songs. (The music is by the late tango composer Astor Piazzolla.) The best moments in Sur are the most nihilistic; Sola performs with intense caring for the human condition, and we feel his pain. The weakest part of the film is the epiphany, which aspires to the paradoxical joy of the dances-amid-disaster that bring both The Seventh Seal and 81/2 to a glorious close. The script lacks the heartfelt logic and the shimmering poetry of its predecessors. The void has stated its case too strongly.

Nonetheless, Sur should be seen; it's worth much more than a one-showing revival in this festival. If it lacks total originality, it does at least pay homage to a tradition of screen art mostly ignored by Hollywood (except perhaps for a few lukewarm attempts by Woody Allen, who is far better suited for comedy). Derivative, yes, but derived from masters.

The existential angst that swept France following World War II must have reached the shores of Argentina by the time of Sur and then stayed there, for El Viaje (The Journey) is from nearly the same philosophical mold -- not surprising, considering both films were directed by Solanas. El Viaje is far more original than Sur in many respects, though it lacks the poetry and intense focus of the director's earlier work. It is filled with surreal and symbolic elements that really don't suggest earlier films, as though Solanas had in the intervening four years freed himself from his teachers. A number of startling and arresting images will stay with you a long while. When was the last time you saw a film that opened with a shot of snow-encrusted Tierra del Fuego and an insert that identifies the location as "The End of the World"? The pan along the deserted shoreline manages to suggest both the natural beauty of a world abandoned by humanity and the alienation of human beings one from the other. The initial sequence, showing the ridiculous educational system in a Catholic school that is quite literally falling to pieces, is unnerving to watch but serves as a powerful statement of religion's failure to solve human problems.

El Viaje then unfolds (in a very leisurely 135 minutes!) the odyssey of its own existential hero (Walter Quiroz), a teenager who appears to be the only one left in this godforsaken environment who cares about the future of humanity and the planet it inhabits. He sets forth on a bicycle, willing to travel thousands of miles to find his biological father (in a more successful use of the Oedipus theme than we find in Edipo Alcade, another festival entry we'll get to in a moment). Along the way the boy, whose name is Martin Nunca (as in Never), turns into Everyman seeking goodness, kindness, love -- almost anything except the egotism and indifference he finds at every turn.

The first metropolis he reaches is Buenos Aires. The place that in Sur was shown to be littered with filth has now almost disappeared under the waters of a great flood that we assume is a consequence of global warming. Human excrement and coffins from submerged cemeteries float alongside boats driven by the lucky few survivors. Escaping from the doomed city, Martin reaches the remote mountains of Bolivia, whose inhabitants nurse him back to health and share what little they have. We're back now to the primitivism of the Eighteenth Century, to the idea of the Noble Savage and the innate goodness of those who live close to and respect the earth. Much of El Viaje is cast in a preachy tone that overly insists on the moral righteousness of its message: Simplify your life and return to a communal system that can exist only in places far removed from the driving need for money and possessions.

Like Sur, El Viaje seeks to leave us with uplifted spirits, but it's hard to buy its trite assurance that the journey, not the destination, is what's important. Aside from the fact that this has always seemed like a cop-out, in this case much of what Martin experiences along the way is pretty gross. He would have done better to stay in Tierra del Fuego. But for all that, Walter Quiroz has some wonderful moments as Martin. Often just one glance from him communicates a whole complex of emotions: the longing for something decent and pure, blended with the sorrow of lost innocence. As far from perfect as the film is, its moral heart beats more profoundly than most of the stuff being turned out in the cities of gold Martin can't seem to find.

A decidedly minor chord is struck by a newer (1996) festival entry. Veteran French film director Francis Veber's Le Jaguar is a French/Venezuelan collaboration that also has an environmental theme, which hits with a more heavy-handed message than El Viaje: Save the rain forest! Sad to say, wrapping a crucial moral in a ridiculous plot can only encourage further indifference.

This time the Noble Savage is a shaman (Harrison Lowe) from a tribe whose rain forest habitat is being decimated by evil capitalists, aided by an evil fellow tribesman who has robbed the shaman's soul, a fatal state of affairs. And when he dies, so will the rain forest. To stave off doom he must find someone to recover his soul. And for some unknown reason, he seeks his redeemer in Paris. The chosen rescuer, Perrin (Patrick Bruel), is a cynical, double-dealing gambler with allegiance to nothing but his own greed. In a series of improbable events, Perrin winds up in the rain forest, fighting a duel to the death with the capitalistic tribesman for possession of the soul. As if the plot weren't melodramatic enough, the very predictable denouement comes about not because Perrin eats his spinach and finds strength he didn't know he had, but because the dying shaman is able to guide him from his deathbed in Paris through a kind of extrasensory remote control. Thus the rain forest is saved through a creaky and altogether silly deus ex machina -- which is as much as saying that the real rain forest can't be saved at all. This should have been an animated feature aimed at implanting subliminal environmental concerns in children, who represent the only hope we have. After seeing this film, you're bound to have renewed appreciation for Pocahontas.

Like a wedding, this festival offers something old, something new, something borrowed but very much askew. Actually, there are two entries that belong to the "borrowed" category. Both are updated versions of enduring classics and inevitably must answer the question, "Why did you feel the need to do this?"

One can think of two possible reasons for updating. First, a given classic has a theme and a method of presentation that can never be surpassed, but the art of cinema did not exist in its time and can greatly enhance what the masterpiece already has to offer. Second, the classic in question was okay for its time, but we can certainly improve upon it with our technology and mastery of cinematic technique.

Seeing as how Edipo Alcade (Mayor Oedipus) tries to reproduce the Sophoclean tragedy many hold to be the greatest single play ever written, one would suppose those responsible for the film didn't believe they could actually improve upon it. Which leaves the first option: They believed its theme and plot structure could translate into a modern setting and content and would benefit from slick cinematic methods, not to mention pulsating music and special effects. One thinks of Kenneth Branagh's enhancement of Henry V, which employed screen editing, camera angles, and closeups to great advantage. But Branagh left Shakespeare pretty much intact. He did not modernize the poetry for the benefit of filmgoers who might not be accustomed to mixing popcorn and iambs. He did not turn the battle of Agincourt into a shootout between cops and terrorists. In short, he respected the integrity of the original, which is the least you can do if you insist on putting a great work into a foreign medium.

Surely the least defensible reason for "updating" a classic is to use its plot to tell a modern story because you don't have one of your own: to use its characters (even keeping their names) and their problems regardless of whether a contemporary setting makes them plausible. Yet this is what screenwriter Gabriel Garcia Marquez (the Nobel laureate himself!) and director Jorge Ali Triana (who has won awards at numerous festivals and should have known better) have done. They have twisted and distorted Sophocles and turned Oedipus Rex unconvincingly into the story of the mayor of a small mountain town in Colombia who gets involved with drug dealers, terrorists, violent killers, and an incestuous (and plenty steamy) love affair with a woman he does not know is his mother.

Mayor Oedipus (Jorge Perugorria) inadvertently shoots Laius, his unbeknownst biological father, in a violent skirmish with terrorists who have abducted him. (Right off, Sophocles is rolling in his grave.) Though a feeble effort is made to suggest that the shooting was the working out of a tragic destiny, Colombia just doesn't have the mythological tradition that supported the original tragedy. The shooting is an accident, but the mayor goes drearily through the rest of the film with a heavy conscience. Except for the wild times in bed with Jocasta (Angela Molina), a sultry, well-endowed actress who looks no older than the mayor, though we know she is his ma. Her references to him early on as "my son" -- while in bed, no less! -- are a laughable use of irony. But by far the funniest sequence occurs late in the film after the mayor, having been warned by the blind Tiresias and an old sorceress on the mountain that he has slain his true father and is cohabiting incestuously with his mother, still cannot resist one last fling in the hay with mommie dearest. Some might consider this a legitimate addition to the old plot made possible by our more tolerant understanding of Freudian drives. If so, then Mayor Oedipus need only have made weekly visits to a shrink in order to assure his troubled psyche that Laius was just the victim of a drive-by shooting and, more important, he has been orally fixated for a bit too long now. In any case, there seems no good reason for him to end up blindly stumbling along I-95 (or whatever) instead of in a lonely desert. On second thought, maybe I-95 is the best we can do in the way of true catastrophe. In any event, this unintentionally hilarious film is highly recommended for those who can never get enough camp.

Another updated classic that has found its way into this festival is a new version of a giant work of literature: Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, a seminal novel of murder and the inner agony that is far worse than any retribution society can provide. In these times of courtroom circuses, another look at the Russian master would seem eminently justified. But why not do Crime and Punishment itself?

Instead, writer Augusto Cabada and director Francisco Lombardi have dished up Sin Compasion (No Mercy), a 1994 collaboration of Peru, Mexico, and France -- three countries noted for excellent cuisine; but remember the old warning about what happens when there are too many cooks in the kitchen. You're lucky to get a stew, never mind a gourmet dinner.

The opening is promising enough, though we soon have to grit our teeth and prepare for a two-hour flashback. Ramon (Diego Bertie), a philosophy student at a university in what is presumed to be Lima, is making his confession to a priest. In an editor's twinkle we see the young man, desperate for shelter and food after having challenged a professor and lost his teaching appointment, driven to murder the landlady and her husband and take all their money. From here the film pretty much alternates -- with almost geometric regularity -- between Ramon's lovemaking with his innocent girlfriend (Adriana Davila) and a civilized cat-and-mouse game that a police investigator (Jorge Chiarella) smilingly plays with him. We soon realize, however, that the writer is more concerned with surface plot details than with trying to re-create the Dostoyevskian world of inner torment. The suspense arises from the question of whether Ramon will outwit the investigator. If he is experiencing a psychological hell, Bertie is unable to convey it. In fact, the author has mixed a little Romeo and Juliet into the brew, so that we appear to be watching the story of a basically nice guy (a sort of Peruvian Jimmy Stewart -- God rest his soul) who committed a slight faux pas but has subsequently discovered his true love, and we are made to wish everything will turn out okay for them.

Now and then Ramon indicates -- and all acting students will know what this means -- that he cannot feel any remorse for his crime. But the breakdown we are led to expect never comes. Instead there is a suggestion of a quasi-happy ending, which may be sending poor Dostoyevsky into his own postmortem version of psychological hell. Perhaps it is intended to be bitterly ironic, but with this film, confused as it is, you never know.

Oh -- the priest. Remember? Well, the confession that should have tied together the moral strands of the story turns out to be as unresolved as everything else. A better idea would have been to make a film about the psychological hell of trying to update something that was overwhelming in its original form and in revenge sends writer, director, and actor into a vortex of bewilderment.

I am told that the star attraction in this festival is the latest Catherine Deneuve opus Genealogies d'un Crime, which was selected for the gala opening July 10. Regrettably, it was unavailable for preview.

The Franco-Hispanic Film Festival. Opens July 10 and continues through July 13 at CocoWalk 16 Theatres (3015 Grand Ave, Coconut Grove; 448-7075). Tickets cost $8. (Opening night tickets cost $50 and include admission to the opening gala.)


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