Last year, my first as the movie reviewer here at New Times, the Miami Film Festival almost drove me crazy. I went berserk running to last-minute critics' previews of festival offerings and fretting over the films I had yet to screen as my deadlines loomed. The logistics of transporting a can of film to Miami from, say, Iran, New Zealand, or the former Yugoslavia guarantee that prints of many of the festival's more exotic offerings are not available in time for me to preview them and still write my review for the upcoming issue. Last year that bothered me. This year, thanks to God and Prozac, it does not. Nevertheless, despite my conscientious efforts -- Herculean, even -- to preview as many of this year's 26 featured films as possible, some potential winners eluded me.
One such film was Before the Rain (Friday, Feb. 10, 9:30 p.m.), the much-talked-about debut of Macedonian (part of the former Yugoslavia) writer-director Milcho Manchevski. A scheduling mixup (probably my fault) prevented me from viewing this Oscar entry for Best Foreign Language Film. Before the Rain falls into three sections: In "Words" a young monk who has taken a vow of silence in a twelfth-century Macedonian monastery must choose between his commitment to God and the love of a mysterious young woman; in "Faces" a London photo editor likewise must choose between two men A her estranged husband and a passionate, wildly quixotic war photographer; in "Pictures" the photographer returns to the civil war-ravaged Macedonian village of his birth. Unfortunately I arrived at the the theater just in time to greet Miami Herald film critic Rene Rodriguez on his way out. Last year Rene and I were in near-unanimous agreement on the merits of the festival's films, so I feel relatively safe in recommending this film on the basis of the little scamp's eyes being wide as saucers as he told me what an amazing spectacle I just had missed.
The best festival film that I actually have seen is Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami's Where Is My Friend's Home? (Saturday, Feb. 11, 11:30 a.m.) Kiarostami is a humanist and a natural celluloid poet who makes big cinema out of small observations. This deceptively simple tale of a young schoolboy named Ahmad, whose innate sense of duty and responsibility drive him to locate a classmate whose notebook Ahmad has taken by mistake, possesses the timeless appeal of a classic. It's an Iranian Bicycle Thief. Ahmad's day-long odyssey to return the notebook is so exquisitely rendered that it carries the power of myth. On one level it is engaging enough to sate the least sophisticated viewer; on another level it's an incredible allegorical journey. Using children and other nonprofessional actors, Kiarostami shoots on location and improvises extensively. His films are so realistic and alive you can almost feel their breath.
Where Is My Friend's Home? effortlessly evokes the theme of youthful idealism versus adult hypocrisy by juxtaposing Ahmad's seemingly endless real-life dilemmas with the ideals he is taught in school. The boy's mother orders him to fetch diapers, ready a baby's bottle, feed the infant, and rock it to sleep when it cries. Then and only then is he allowed to start his homework. Meanwhile his stern disciplinarian teacher insists, "Your first duty is to your education." Your heart goes out to the poor kid. He's fighting the eternal battle against uncomprehending authority figures. The literary parallels range from Homer to Salinger.
Where Is My Friend's Home? is only the first film in a Kiarostami trilogy that never before has been exhibited, in sequence, in the U.S. The second segment of the troika, And Life Goes On... (Saturday, Feb. 11, 2:00 p.m.), follows a father and son who take to the road in search of Ahmad, the first film's protagonist, in the wake of the 1990 earthquake that devastated Iran. The third, Through the Olive Trees (Saturday, Feb. 11, 4:30 p.m.), is the story of a homeless, illiterate bricklayer who persists in wooing a reluctant village girl he adores. I hadn't previewed either of the last two at press time, but if they're anything like the first film, they are not to be missed.
New Zealand filmmaker Lee Tamahori's Once Were Warriors (Thursday, Feb. 9, 7:00 p.m.) is a bleak, brutal, and bizarre portrait of a native Maori family caught in a web of alcoholism, macho posturing, cultural apathy, and governmental ineffectiveness. Hokey melodrama, uneven (but passionate) performances, and overwrought dialogue weigh it down even as compelling visuals and harrowing scenes of domestic violence propel it forward. It's a hard movie to watch, but there are several powerful scenes you will not easily forget. Try to imagine Mad Max meets The Honeymooners, but with all of the humor sucked out.
Shallow Grave (Thursday, Feb. 9, 9:30 p.m.) has an abundance of the comic relief Warriors lacks. "I've never seen a dead body before, except my grandmother, and she was alive at the time so I suppose that doesn't count," conservative accountant David admits to Alex and Juliet, his best friends and roommates. While a keen-witted, extended opening sequence of the three of them mercilessly and hilariously grilling prospective roommates sets the film's flip, sarcastic tone, this twisted parable of greed and paranoia really begins when the trio discovers the nude corpse of Hugo (the eventual roommate sweepstakes winner), who has OD'd on heroin his first night in the apartment. Alex finds a suitcase full of cash stashed under the dead man's bed. The three amigos' decision to keep the money and dispose of the body sets in motion a chain of events that spirals into death, dismemberment, and dementia. Scottish director Danny Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge have concocted a cynical cross between Three's Company and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
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As for this year's ancillary events, Stan Brakhage, the U.S.'s (and arguably the world's) preeminent experimental filmmaker, will anchor a panel discussion on the state of the art of avant-garde moviemaking (Friday, Feb. 10, noon, Room 1676, MDCC's Wolfson Campus). Bruce Posner, filmmaker, curator of the Harvard Film Archive, and Bill Orcutt's predecessor as executive director of the Alliance Cinema on Miami Beach, moderates. Then, at midnight on Friday at the Alliance and midnight Saturday at the Astor Art Cinema in Coral Gables, the festival presents Spirit Stream Storm, an anthology of fifteen recent short films by the form's most intrepid innovators. These films stretch the limits of cinematic imagination; viewing them is tantamount to locking yourself in a room with a half-dozen of the greatest abstract impressionist painters of all time as they bombard you with reproductions of their work. These folks often painstakingly craft their images one frame at a time, using such low-tech methods as painting, scratching, etching, pasting, and even batiking film stock. MTV's Liquid Television seems old-fashioned and lazily paced by comparison.
Speaking of Liquid Television, Prudence Fenton, executive producer of the groundbreaking MTV show, will participate in a panel discussion, "Filmmaking and New Technology" (Friday, Feb. 10, 3:00 p.m., Room 1261, MDCC's Wolfson Campus). The panel also includes documentarian Ron Mann (Twist), who'll demonstrate his newest project, Painters Painting (based on the New York art scene from 1940-1970), on CD-ROM.
I can not close this preview of festival highlights without plugging one final panel discussion. Since I took this job, the one question I've heard a thousand times is, "What's your favorite movie?" The answer to that varies radically, based upon my mood at the time, what I've seen recently, and the perceived biases of the person doing the asking. But I can state unequivocally that the movie I have seen more times than any other is Taxi Driver. (I know, I know. I'm a sick puppy.)
Paul Shrader, the man who wrote that movie -- as well as Raging Bull, Rolling Thunder, and The Last Temptation of Christ A is going to be here for a panel on a subject I know nothing about A film criticism (Saturday, Feb. 10, 10:00 a.m., Room 2106, MDCC's Wolfson Campus). Schrader was a movie reviewer long before he sold his soul to become a screenwriter and director. He will be joined on the panel by Newsweek's David Ansen, The Nation's Stuart Klawans, and the Philadelphia Inquirer's Carrie Rickey. Heavyweights all. Harlan Jacobson, who did such a fine job of moderating last year's critics' workshop, has accepted the challenge of trying to get them all to agree on an evaluation of at least one film again this year. Look for me there; I'll be the one with the demented smile and the mohawk. The Miami Film Festival just seems to do that to me.