Witnesses to Stalin's iron fist
Witnesses to Stalin's iron fist

Fest Full of Film

After a light lead with Bossa Nova, this week the FIU Miami Film Festival comes to an end on a heavier note with the French screen version of Stalin's world, East-West. The big French offering in this second half is Battle Cries, the story of a pregnant woman with breast cancer that first previewed last year at Cannes. Although no Chinese films are screened this year, two interesting Asian samplers are offered: Kikujiro from Japanese director Takeshi Kitano, and out from under the rising suns and dragons, a South Korean entry, Nowhere to Hide (apparently making Hong Kong's films seem slow). Mifune is not Asian but Danish, a 1999 Silver Bear winner from the Berlinale. The highly touted Bhutanese film about soccer-happy teenage boys in a monastery in the Himalayas, The Cup, sweetens the week, as does the Mario Vargas Llosa adaptation from Peru, Captain Pantoja and the Special Service. The other Latin-American representative this week comes from the other side of the straits: a Cuban film -- actually from Cuba -- called Life Is to Whistle. The special events continue, including the Commedia all'italiana retrospective of postwar Italian work, panels and discussions, and visits from filmmakers, like the one last week from Eric Mendelsohn, whose take on his film Judy Berlin follows. For more information about the festival see "Calendar Events" or call 305-372-0925.

Dark, scary, and oppressive sum up East-West, a film about the Soviet Union under Stalin and his iron-fisted regime. For many in South Florida, the film may seem even darker. In 1946 Stalin called on all Russian citizens living in exile to return to the motherland. Many of them, weighed down by nostalgia and the difficulties of life in a strange land, decided to go back, carrying with them the idealistic dream of creating a new Russia where the people's will could be stronger than the regime's.

Directed by Academy Award winner Régis Wargnier, East-West focuses on the family of Alexei (Oleg Menchikov), a Russian doctor living in France who decides to go back with his wife, Marie (Sandrine Bonnaire), and their son, Serioja (Serguei Bodrov). Once in the U.S.S.R., however, they become aware that it's too late to correct their mistake; they can't turn back, and they have to choose between adapting to a new, horrible life or facing the more horrible fate of being executed as traitors.

From the first scenes when the family arrives in Odessa and a Russian official destroys Marie's French passport, accusing her of being a spy, to when the old lady at the collective house is denounced and arrested for speaking French (a foreign language) with her new neighbor, it's predictable what this family's ordeal will be. Alexei and Marie's lives are torn apart. The oppressive system under which they live doesn't allow them space for privacy. Constantly being watched, even by a best friend or a close relative, they live in an atmosphere of silence, fear, and double morality.

While Alexei conforms, eventually choosing opportunism to survive, Marie struggles to recover her freedom and manages to tell her calamitous situation to a famous French actress (Catherine Deneuve) who is visiting the city. In the meantime Marie finds a companion in Sacha, a young swimmer who thinks winning a European championship is his only chance to escape to the West. For Marie and Sacha, the only way to find freedom is to gain time and the government's confidence. Sacha ultimately manages to escape the U.S.S.R. but, despite his attempts to save Marie, she is send to a gulag.

Wargnier is capable of re-creating the Russian spirit through a curious combination of traditional Soviet film and a sharp narrative with naked, merciless speech. This allows events to flow smoothly, enriching the plot to the extent that it pulls the spectator into the darkness of a real nightmare. The period reconstruction is subtle and meticulous, and its realistic approach avoids any overdone stylistic effects.

East-West has a powerful cast. Menchikov gives a brilliant performance, though he doesn't speak a word of French and had to learn his lines phonetically. In Nikita Mikhalkov's Oscar-winning film Burnt by the Sun, Menchikov played Dimitri, the dark and hideous Stalinist spy who returns with a vengeance. We remember Bonnaire as the dysfunctional young woman who chooses freedom in Agnes Varda's Sans Toit Ni Loi (Without Roof or Rule). And completing this highly professional cast is Deneuve who, since The Umbrellas of Cherbourg to her Cesar for Best Actress in Wargnier's own Indochine, could be considered Our Lady of French cinema.

This movie is based on actual interviews with survivors of this experience. The film goes beyond a portrait of daily life under Stalin's U.S.S.R.; it is an astonishing exposure of the totalitarian system, where brutality and the deepest scorn for human nature are not exclusive to the Stalin era, but are representative of the system itself. East-West is, however, more than a film about a political system. It is a horror film that keeps you nailed to your seat with a noose around your neck, yet also makes you feel relief for not being there. -- Sergio Giral

The Cup
"Making a good film," says Bhutanese filmmaker Khyentse Norbu in his director's statement, "is a bit like doing good Buddhist practice." The 38-year-old lama's first feature is a case in point. The story of a group of young Tibetan monks distracted from their meditations by the 1998 World Cup, the film The Cup uses cinema to teach Buddhist values. Under the thoughtful direction of a respected religious leader, those values make for enchanting cinema.

The Cup opens with the sweet voice of a boy chanting while sheets on a clothesline ripple in a gentle breeze. The textures of the textiles fill the screen, then dissolve into a panoramic view of the Himalayas. The mountains in turn give way to fingers pulling apart a tuft of cotton. The impassive beauty of the landscape alternates with the steady effort of human hands until the play of surfaces culminates in the lighting of a candle. These simple, unhurried steps along the path to enlightenment sum up both the mise en scène and the message of The Cup.

Recognized as the incarnation of a nineteenth-century saint, director Norbu entered the monastic life at the tender age of seven. As an adult he dedicated himself to studying Buddhist philosophy and managing monasteries and meditation centers in Asia, Europe, and the United States. Norbu developed an interest in filmmaking when Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci recruited him as an apprentice on the 1993 release Little Buddha. This Keanu Reeves's vehicle, like a spate of other recent films by interested outsiders, exploited the dramatic potential of the Tibetan struggle to preserve their traditions despite the brutal Chinese takeover of their homeland. By contrast The Cup cautions against the self-destructive force of hatred and concentrates instead on the quiet dramas of compassion.

With insider access a National Geographic correspondent would die for, Norbu set his film at the Chokling Monastery in India and recruited his actors from the Tibetan refugee monks who live there. Loosely based on a true story of mischief in the monastery, The Cup features delightful performances by first-time thespians whose roles were in many cases assigned not by the director but by Buddhist rites of divination. Thirteen-year-old Jamang Lodro is endearing in the role of Orgyen, a feisty troublemaker determined to see championship soccer. His real-life father plays Geko, the elder fruitlessly determined to discipline him. The antics of adolescent monks, who fashion finger puppets during prayer and hide soccer jerseys under their robes, lighten up Buddhist ritual that might otherwise seem exotic and inaccessible.

A story of exiles yearning for their homeland, The Cup has a special resonance for Miami audiences. The old abbot keeps his belongings packed for the journey back home. A mother sends her two young boys to live under the abbot's care, rather than suffer Chinese rule in Tibet. Soccer-obsessed Orgyen represents the new generation that sees their homeland as foreign and a little bit backward. "Is it true," he asks one of the newly arrived boys, "that Tibetans bathe only one time in their lives?" Buddhist teachings suggest a very Tibetan course out of exile, however. "Let me love my neighbor," prays the abbot, "as I love myself." -- Celeste Fraser Delgado

Takeshi Kitano's latest film is a surprising departure for those familiar with his bruising gangster pictures such as Hani-Bi (Fireworks). Kikujiro is a deadpan road picture that punctuates a painterly stillness with gorgeous stylistic intrusions. The film gives us an engaging character study of an endearing misanthrope through the sulking eyes of a young boy. When the character of Kikujiro (played masterfully by Beat Takeshi) falls flat it is intentional: Takeshi uses slapstick pratfalls that shift his international persona from Humphrey Bogart toward Charlie Chaplin.

Chaplin is an appropriate launching point for this story of a young boy's (Masao) search for his mother with an unwilling man serving as his guardian (Kikujiro). The film is by no means an Adam Sandler-esque calculated makeover (instant charm, insert cute kid), though. The reluctant tenderness of Kikujiro is closer to Chaplin's The Kid. The film's simplicity should not be confused with monotony; the quiet elegance of the movie is better described as Zen than dull. Using Masao's (played by Yusuke Sekiguchi) journal as a framing device works well. Each page offers the earnestness of a child's report about his summer vacation, but also notes the transformation of a man who has blossomed from a manipulative, comical lout into a caring individual.

The film's use of color is incredibly dynamic, shifting from blue-tinted, deeply sad landscapes to the Crayola-like internal mindscapes of Masao. Kitano depicts demons and a bizarre child molester in a kabuki style that is simultaneously humorous and horrifying. Kitano demonstrates a respect for the sensitivity of children, and is visionary in depicting the frightening potential of their imagination.

The film flirts with mawkishness along the way: Masao is engulfed in angel imagery like some kind of department-store Christmas tree. The film's tenderness is borderline Pollyanna: The cliché of the hesitant father who awakens to responsibility has been seen in countless mutations, including afterschool specials. Kitano, however, pulls it off through a whimsical denouement in which the seeming slowness and sadness of the film gives way to a playful idyll. Characters from other journey films who act against type (Easy Rider-style bikers decked out in Misfits T-shirts, a traveling minstrel) pass Masao and Kikujiro along the way. They are united at a campground after Masao has found his mother, finally forming a home and creating a temporary space for frivolity. Games of "freeze" and make-believe re-enactments of activities such as fishing leave the viewer just as enchanted as the boy.

The comic surprisingly slips into the violent in certain moments, as Kitano's weathered hand reemerges. Ultimately Kikujiro is both beautiful and tender, exhibiting a wholly original visual style that is part Shinto, part vaudeville, but all Kitano. He has reaffirmed his place as an important figure in the world cinema. For those unfamiliar with his oeuvre, this is as good a point as any to jump aboard. -- Jonathan Lang

La Vida es Silbar (Life Is to Whistle)
For the first time in the event's seventeen-year history, the festival features a film made in Cuba by a director who still lives and works under communist rule. The inclusion in the festival of Life Is to Whistle by director Fernando Perez is less a sign of cultural opening on the mainland than an acknowledgement of a growing dissidence among filmmakers on the island.

The current reliance of the Cuban film industry on coproductions with European companies has loosened to a certain extent the control wielded by the Cuban film institute, the official government organization that oversees filmmaking in Cuba. A coproduction by the Cuban film institute and the Spanish corporation Wanda Distributions, Life Is to Whistle plays a dangerous game with the censors, delivering a barely encoded message.

Inspired by the Surrealist painter Magritte, Perez's contemporary Havana is swimming with dreamy juxtapositions of absurd images. Sex scenes are crosscut with snails. An underwater narrator (Bebe Perez) is kissed by a fish. But the debt to Magritte does not end there. The French artist shook the hold representational painting had on reality when he scrawled across his picture of a pipe: "This is not a pipe." When Perez follows three archetypal Cuban characters to Castro's Revolution Square, he proclaims in his own way: "This is not a revolution." Without losing the bite of Magritte's humor, Perez shows how the words repeated in Cuba for the past 40 years wreak violence on reality. Legions of Cubans faint in the street when they hear the hollow sounds of words such as morality and liberty.

Perez tears down revolutionary icons from the most lofty to the most mundane. The character Mariana (Claudia Rojas) is a ballerina of the new generation meant to carry on the legacy of dance legend and cultural dictator Alicia Alonso. Mariana's handling of Giselle, Alonso's most celebrated role, is a direct challenge to the revolution's authoritarian grip on culture. Male protagonist Elpidio Valdes (Luis Alberto Garcia) takes his name directly from a cartoon superhero broadcast on Cuban television in the 1970s that was invented to keep the minds of socialist tykes off the capitalist likes of Superman and Wonder Woman. In Perez's film the character once famed for fighting "against dollar and cannon" now trails tourists in search of greenbacks. A long-haired, pot-smoking ne'er-do-well, Elpidio is frequently visited by his conscience. Rather than the voice of Che Guevara's New Man, the moral imperative of this imperfect son of socialist society sings with the raspy voice of the sad-faced, dark-skinned prerevolutionary crooner Bola de Nieve (Snowball).

If some familiarity with recent Cuban history is required to decipher these revisions of the revolution, other aspects of Life Is to Whistle verge on the obvious. The mother who rejects Elpidio despite his undying love for her is named "Cuba." Nearly every character in the film is an orphan who declares at some point: "I never knew my parents either." Ringing from the cold orphanages of Havana to the comfortable homes of exiles in Miami, this symbolic lament of the abandoned children of the revolution might be the most powerful reason of all to see the film here. -- Celeste Fraser Delgado


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