Frolicking at the Fest

For film buffs it's two weeks of sheer pleasure: the sixteenth annual Miami Film Festival, featuring 31 pictures from fifteen countries. Naturally Spanish-language features abound, from opening-night dance-fest Tango, courtesy of Argentine director Carlos Saura, to the kinky Spanish thriller Between Your Legs. There are also intimate looks at Cuban culture in both Hotel Riviera, a telling portrait of a Havana inn's evolution from a home for American mobsters to a den of Cuban spies, and Buena Vista Social Club, German director Wim Wenders's loving look at a group of old-school (and Grammy Award-winning) Cuban musicians.

The rest of the world has hardly been slighted, though. There are films from Iran (The Apple), Yugoslavia (Black Cat, White Cat by Emir Kusturica of Underground fame), China (The King of Masks), France (The Dreamlife of Angels, widely regarded as that country's film of the year), Italy (Besieged, the latest from legendary director Bernardo Bertolucci), and Sweden (The Last Contract). From America are the winner of this year's Sundance Film Festival's Audience Award, Three Seasons, and another Sundance fave, A Walk on the Moon. The festival opens Friday, February 19 and runs through Sunday, February 28 at the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts, 174 E. Flagler St. Call 305-372-0925 for tickets.

Seven full-length reviews follow. See "Film Capsules" for some short takes on other festival movies. New Times coverage of the fest will continue in the next issue.

In an early scene in Tango, master Argentine dancer Juan Carlos Copes takes to the floor of a Buenos Aires nightclub with a woman decades younger than he is. The club's crowd sits mesmerized as he presses his hand on his partner's back, precisely steering her through a complex combination of turns and dips. The camera closes in on Copes's grizzled face as he bores into her eyes with a burning stare.

With that one look the veteran dancer distills the tango to its seductive essence. Unfortunately Spanish writer-director Carlos Saura is unable to do the same in his banal screen meditation on the South American art form. Produced in Argentina with the highest film budget in that nation's history, Tango (in Spanish with English subtitles) features a cast of top dancers and musicians that ranges from storied old-timers to young performers who bring a contemporary flair to the timeworn steps. Sensual photography by Vittorio Storaro (1973's Last Tango in Paris, 1979's Apocalypse Now) and innovative set design make for spectacular, Hollywood-style scenes, but the film is hobbled by a hackneyed romantic melodrama.

In the throes of a destructive midlife crisis, film director Mario Suarez (Miguel Angel Sola) writes an autobiographical screenplay while recuperating from a car accident he had during a bender. His dancer wife Laura (Cecilia Narova) has left him, taking her dance partner as her new lover. While scouting talent at a tango club, Suarez is smitten by Elena Flores (Mia Maestro), a young would-be dancer with a model's looks. She is the lover of club owner Angelo Larroca (Juan Luis Galiardo), a mafioso who has a stake in Suarez's latest project. Larroca pressures the director to cast the inexperienced Elena. Predictably, and in this case infeasibly, the ingenue and the director become lovers, despite the threat of the jilted mobster's revenge.

Sola, a well-known screen actor in Argentina, has a natural style that is endearing, but here he has little to do but moon around and stare meaningfully -- at his ex-wife and her lover, at Elena, at the rehearsing dancers -- when not uttering trite truisms about artistic integrity and stage lighting "that reveals the soul." Although the 22-year-old Maestro is certainly beautiful, her acting is so self-conscious and wooden that her presence onscreen pinches like a pair of new dancing shoes. On the other hand, Narova, an outstanding dancer who had a lead role in the Broadway show Tango Argentina, proves to be an engaging actress, and she oozes sex appeal. She's not the only one. Tango belongs to the dancers, both women and men; in the performance numbers and in rehearsal scenes they reveal a passion for their art and for each other. The cast includes American Ballet Theater soloist Julio Bocca as the tango company's choreographer. It's a treat to watch him dance the woman's part in one homosexually suggestive number. The venerable Copes, who is revered in the Argentine tango world, dashingly embodies the provocative image of the tango galan. The original score is by Lalo Schifrin (best known as the composer of the Mission: Impossible theme), and the soundtrack includes a slew of tango classics. Storaro's beautiful cinematography really illuminates the screen in a scene of a performance by the El Nuevo Quinteto Real, with the camera focusing on the musicians' gnarled hands as they play piano and bandoneon.

The outstanding dance and music sequences come as no surprise given the fact that Saura's sublime Eighties trilogy of flamenco films (1981's Blood Wedding, 1983's Carmen, 1986's A Love Bewitched) are the definitive cinematic portrayals of that genre, as well as realistic studies of Spanish Gypsy culture. The filmmaker touches on the social history of tango here, but he has difficulty finding something transcendental to say about a culture that is not his own. Dance numbers in Tango allude to Argentina's immigrant population and the country's violent history, but they merely scratch the surface. And though a haunting contemporary dance piece evoking the mass tortures and killings committed during the "dirty war" conducted by the nation's military regime in the Seventies is riveting, the subject is given only scant attention in the dialogue. Saura might have considered delving deeper into the country that is synonymous with the tango. It is indeed curious that he chose to shoot the entire picture indoors on a sound stage just outside of Buenos Aires. Filming in the streets of the city could really have brought the tango to life. As it is, by its conclusion (the film runs almost two hours) Tango seems claustrophobic.

Saura obviously intended the couplings in his script to be a metaphor for the tango, a mating dance fueled by longing and lust, not love. But the story plods along with no real climax: It certainly isn't the rote bedroom scene between Suarez and Elena. And a surprise twist ending arrives too late, because the predictable plot has already proved a fumble-footed partner for the tango's rich sensorial delights. (Friday, February 19, 7:30 p.m.)

-- Judy Cantor

From its serene, austerely beautiful early passages, the 1996 Chinese drama The King of Masks, director Wu Tianming's first film in eight years, builds to a devastating emotional pitch that invites comparisons with Japanese classics such as Kenji Mizoguchi's Sansho the Bailiff (1954) and Kon Ichikawa's Fires on the Plain (1959).

It's the deceptively simple story of an aging street performer (a specialist in the art of "change-face opera," in which the player switches masks with astounding speed) whose only son has died and whose wife has abandoned him, leaving him obsessed with securing an heir to whom he can pass on the tricks of his trade. The setting is the rigidly traditional China of the early Twentieth Century, and so that heir must be male. It's also a time of poverty and famine so widespread that desperate families resort to selling their children; the old man is able to buy an appealing youngster from one such parent, only to discover too late that the child is actually a girl disguised as a boy.

Once unmasked the eight-year-old girl becomes a devoted companion who risks everything in her quest to find the "grandson" her reluctant guardian so wants and needs, and the film chronicles the agonizing consequences of her actions. Along the way she and her master cross paths repeatedly with an enigmatic character known as both Master Liang and the Living Bodhisattva, a female impersonator who's one of the top opera stars of the country and who has the utmost respect for the humble King of Masks. Not since The Crying Game (1992) has gender confusion had such far-reaching ramifications.

As befitting a movie in which masks are so important, Wu is a filmmaker clearly in love with faces: the gap-toothed mouth and shaved head of the grave, dignified old man (Chu Yuk); the fragile yet fiercely determined countenance of the girl, a bruised beauty nicknamed Doggie (Chao Yim Yin); the fluid androgyny of the opera star (Zhao Zhigang), who wears masks of stylized makeup in some scenes and an ordinary young man's visage in others; even the haunting face of the monkey who's part of the old man's act. Wu's camera lingers on these enormously expressive faces, waiting patiently for them to give up their secrets.

The filmmaker doesn't have the command of sweeping, voluptuous imagery of a director such as his countryman Zhang Yimou (1990's Ju Dou, 1991's Raise the Red Lantern), whose career he helped launch more than a decade ago. And at times he gets a bit carried away with "ancient Chinese wisdom," tossing off such stilted epigrams as "Though mine is a small teacup, it doesn't leak," and "A drop of compassion deserves a wellspring of gratitude."

But he's also a great humanist artist in the tradition of Chaplin and Jean Renoir. The King of Masks (in Mandarin with English subtitles) transcends its humble beginnings to become a resonant piece of work touching on a wealth of big themes: loyalty and friendship, the meaning of family, the indifference of large social institutions to human suffering, the mysteries of faith and fate. To his credit, Wu neither trivializes them nor pumps them up with false grandeur. (Saturday, February 20, 11:30 a.m.)

-- Michael Mills

"Once upon a time in the shtetl," says the narrator at the beginning of Train of Life (Train de Vie), French-Romanian director Radu Mihaileanu's tragicomic fable about an Eastern European village that, in 1941, tries to outwit the Nazis in an astoundingly unusual way. When village fool Shlomo learns that the Germans have deported Jews in neighboring towns, he goes to his town's elders to help them concoct a plan. Together they decide to assemble a fake transport train to carry the village's entire population to what was then Palestine. Aboard the train townspeople will masquerade as Nazi officers in hopes of fooling the German Army during the journey.

The result -- surely the only film to feature a montage set to klezmer music -- is not always as successful as its hilarious premise. As the train winds its way east toward the Russian border, its inhabitants experience several near misses with disaster, including one in which a passenger, left behind at a rest stop, is almost killed by real Germans. But Mihaileanu is less interested in telling a suspense story than he is in exploring the escape scheme's comic possibilities. He exploits the absurdity of the shtetl Jews -- self-proclaimed expert tailors -- whipping up authentic-looking SS uniforms, and has them hide mezuzahs (small prayer scrolls) under the swastikas emblazoned on each train car. The film's major set piece involves the "Nazis" aboard the train requisitioning a giant kosher feast right under the noses of real Germans. And in one poignant scene, the travelers stop to celebrate the Sabbath: They bow their heads in prayer, many of them wearing yarmulkes atop their Nazi attire.

Less Mel Brooks than Isaac Bashevis Singer, Mihaileanu's comic sensibility is antiquated and droll rather than side-splittingly funny. Train of Life (in French with English subtitles) doesn't boast the razor-sharp daring of this past year's Life Is Beautiful, another film that uses comedy to address the Holocaust. But anyone who harbors nostalgia for a more innocent era of Yiddish humor, or who recognizes the film's parody of shtetl life, with burgeoning communist cells duking it out with religious factions, will cherish the evocation of a certain time and place and culture that Mihaileanu re-creates aboard the train. And his affable cast portrays the village's endearing, ragtag characters with an in-your-face acting style.

Mihaileanu, who grew up in Romania but now lives in Paris, has said that he was inspired to make his movie after seeing Schindler's List and realizing that filmmakers needed to find fresh ways to chronicle the Holocaust. According to a published interview, he heard the story of the fake transport train at a dinner party. But after exhaustive research in numerous Holocaust archives, the director was unable to verify the tale's authenticity. Of course, whether it really happened or not is beside the point. By depicting a specific event that most probably never occurred, Mihaileanu makes us understand what did occur with new eyes.

Humor has always been a useful weapon of the persecuted -- all the more so if it takes the form of imagining that the townspeople of a tiny village could fashion a train out of salvage, disguise themselves as their enemies, and escape death at the hands one of the most evil forces in the world. (Sunday, February 21, 11:30 a.m.)

-- Robin Dougherty

Doug Liman's 1996 directorial debut Swingers was a modest look at the search for love among a flock of twenty-something L.A. hipsters. Although certainly not earthshaking, it had its share of laughs and intelligent banter, and its neo-Rat Pack characters struck a chord with audiences, helping to move cocktail culture and the swing music revival out of its cozy underground niche and into the mainstream. Swingers offered reassurance that the kids were alright -- as enamored of Frank Sinatra, cigar lounges, and old-fashioned romance as their parents.

Liman's new feature Go returns to the atomized sprawl of Los Angeles, and like its predecessor, chronicles the exploits of a group of close friends. This time out, however, the filmmaker turns his attention to a clique of freshly graduated high-schoolers who divide their time between minimum-wage supermarket jobs and the all-night warehouse rave scene. An altogether more ambitious affair than Swingers, its dance-and-drug milieu is intended to unsettle and rattle -- to make parents think twice before letting their kids out of the house again. It's also a muddled mess, crippled in part by John August's weak script.

Setting up a Generation X Rashomon, the film traces and then retraces a night in the life of a teenage drug deal. We start with Ronna (Sarah Polley), one of the supermarket cashiers. On the cusp of being evicted from her apartment, Ronna attempts to come up with some fast cash via an Ecstasy sale, and in the process discovers that her would-be customers are actually cops. Eventually we meet a requisitely surly drug dealer, get subjected to a mind's-eye view of an Ecstasy trip (for sheer goofiness it ranks with Easy Rider's acid sequence), and hear exchanges such as the following one between Ronna and her pal Claire (Katie Holmes, reprising her ingenue role from TV's Dawson's Creek), who objects to being used as human collateral for some pills:

Claire: "You're making me an accessory."
Ronna: "That bracelet you're wearing -- that's an accessory."
Those lines define the depth Liman and August ascribe to the pair's friendship, and, for that matter, to the inner lives of all the film's characters. We retread the evening's events through different sets of eyes (Claire's, those of a self-absorbed British co-worker of Ronna, and from the viewpoints of two soap opera actors forced into working as narcs), but we never discover anything truly meaningful about these people. They remain shallowly drawn outlines, never attaining full human status. And the jumps in perspective seem designed only to allow Liman to cram in several pointless exercises in Tarantino-esque violence. By the end of the night we've seen these characters pass out, throw up, get kicked in the stomach, shot in the arm, and go sailing over the windshields of speeding cars with a sickening crunch.

The filmmakers seem to be hawking a cautionary tale: Hurtling forward blindly -- go! -- courts dangerous consequences. Yet they have devised such cardboard cutouts for characters that it's impossible to empathize with Ronna, Claire, and the others, a fact driven home by several glaring holes in the story. After being held hostage for several hours, Claire ends up sharing a morning cup of coffee with her tormentor. Yet we're never given one reason why her feelings should have softened. In truth it's unclear why any of these characters are even friends with each other; and if they don't care what happens to their lives, why should we? In the end these people are just so much damaged flesh, with Go coming across as an empty depiction of the same dehumanized landscape it attempts to critique. (Saturday, February 20, 7:00 p.m.)

-- Brett Sokol

An appealing hybrid of fiction and documentary, The Apple joins a small group of contemporary films (1988's The Thin Blue Line, 1992's Brother's Keeper) that depart from the insular universe of movies to reach out and affect the real world. It tells the story of Massoumeh and Zahra, real-life eleven-year-old Iranian twins who were kept locked in the house by their father. The family's plight became public when neighbors wrote to the authorities complaining that the children neither had been bathed nor schooled since birth. The release of the film has helped Massoumeh and Zahra and their parents attain a more well-rounded life.

Director Samira Makhmalbaf is a young Iranian woman herself, only seventeen years old when she first read about the girls, and only eighteen when The Apple won the 1998 Cannes Film Festival's Un Certain Regard prize (for films not entered in the official competition). Makhmalbaf, however, isn't your typical Iranian teenager. She is the daughter of prominent Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf (Gabbeh, Salaam Cinema), a circumstance that helped her to circumvent the standard long waiting process for government approval of a script, as well as to obtain film stock, also controlled by the authorities. Thanks to her determination and her considerable talents, Makhmalbaf became the youngest director ever to have a film screened at Cannes.

In addition to serving as a nonfiction account, The Apple (in Persian with English subtitles) operates as a fable, one that follows a decades-long Iranian filmmaking tradition of constructing tales about children in order to criticize social ills, thereby dodging the possibility of censorship. On one level the film records how the girls were taken from their elderly impoverished father and blind mother, and then returned when the parents promised to feed them properly and let them play outside the house. As an allegory, however, it confronts the condition of women in Iran, great numbers of whom have their freedom curtailed by customs and laws that consider them the property of their husband and fathers.

Using the real family members as actors, Makhmalbaf re-creates crucial scenes from their lives while constructing fresh dramatic situations. We watch as the children, as naive and unsocialized as three-year-olds, discover ice cream and then apples, the fruit that becomes a symbol of their liberation. Remarkably nonjudgmental, the film allows the father to explain that locking up the children was the only solution that made sense to him. Given the fact that his wife was blind, he didn't think the twins were safe unless confined. He is also astoundingly unapologetic. He reads from a book that advises fathers to keep their daughters inside lest they be tarnished by contact with the world. Not until a social worker locks him up in his own house does he begin to glimpse the darkness to which he has sentenced his daughters.

Makhmalbaf's own father wrote the screenplay for the film, but The Apple is clearly the young woman's vision. She directs with an inventive eye, at one point giving the children mirrors to play with and then filming the various images reflected in them. The picture is awash in saturated primary colors. Single objects -- an apple, a cup, a goat -- take on talismanic properties. In its most powerful moments, The Apple addresses the fate of the girls' blind mother, nearly left behind when the rest of the family is liberated. She comes across as both sinister and pitiful, and significantly we never see her face (it's hidden behind her chador). She haunts us in the film's enduring final sequence as she stands in front a mirror, not seeing but suggesting that her image has much to tell. (Saturday, February 20, 2:00 p.m.)

-- Robin Dougherty

Mexican director Carlos Carrera's 1998 Under a Spell (Un Embrujo) has the look of a Diego Rivera mural come to life. Like the people depicted by the master painter, Carrera's subjects are wide-faced women with braided hair in white cotton dresses and woven shawls; squat, hard-laboring men; and beautiful, black-haired children. The ochre shades of Rivera's palette paint Carrera's visually arresting film, shot in a coastal town on the Yucatan peninsula. Its sepia tones and many members of its indigenous cast also vividly recall the photographs that Manuel Alvarez Bravo made in the same region during the Twenties and Thirties. Like Rivera and Bravo, Carrera has a pictorial interest in the social conditions of Mexicans, which he manifests beautifully in the stunning cinematography and astute art direction of this magic-realist tragedy, set in the context of the Mexican workers' struggle of the Twenties.

Schoolteacher Felipa (Blanca Guerra) has come to Progreso from (presumably) Mexico City to give the children of the town's illiterate dockworkers "a revolutionary education." Thirteen-year-old Eliseo Zapata (Daniel Acuna) is one of her students; he spends his after-school hours making mischief with his friends and dodging the wrath of his harsh but noble union-organizing father, who proudly claims to be a relative of revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata. To discipline the boy, the teacher orders him to clean her house each morning before school.

Fortyish and beautiful, Felipa is anything but a prudish schoolmarm. She prefers the part-time sexual attentions of a promiscuous sailor to the proper intentions of the zealous high school principal. And it is not long before she is giving Eliseo his sentimental education. With his gap-toothed grin and twig-thin body, Eliseo is certainly no Lolita, and his tryst with his teacher comes off not so much prurient as just plain weird. But Felipa is impressed enough with the young teen's prowess to award him A's in class and allow him to carry the flag at a school assembly. Soon Eliseo is also shagging the bourgeois mother of one of his best friends.

The odd couplings are soon overshadowed by stranger goings-on about town: Felipa's sailor lover dies at sea, and rumors spread that the schoolteacher caused his death by casting a spell on him in revenge for his philandering. She is further disgraced when her relationship with Eliseo is discovered, and she leaves town with the still-enamored school principal, who marries her. Then a friend of Eliseo who spread the rumors about Felipa becomes possessed -- or gets rabies -- after being bitten by a dog, and he is shot after biting someone else. Finally Eliseo's father is crippled in an "accident" when he denounces the town's corrupt mayor and attempts to improve conditions for the dockworkers.

Flash-forward to a grown Eliseo (played by hunky Mario Zaragoza with an air of defeated chagrin), now an illiterate, drunk dockworker married to the daughter of a protective family. But he appears forever jinxed: When his father dies, Eliseo's position on the docks is revoked by the vengeful mayor. Meanwhile Felipa returns to town after her husband dies, with plans to open a seaside bar. Eliseo blames her for his fate, and their confrontation leads to the film's burning conclusion.

This epic narrative (in Spanish with English subtitles) is at times awkward and ultimately a little tiring, yet much beauty can be found in the details: old men on the docks with maps of a hard life etched into their wrinkled faces; fishnet patterns of rope hammocks suspended in a dirt-floored bedroom; the hopeful, tattered performers in a shabby traveling circus; a basketful of fried fish. These are telling images of a time and place, aesthetically spellbinding.

Ultimately, though, Carrera, who co-wrote the screenplay with Martin Salinas, wants us to think about how the hard realities of these people's lives are relieved (or antagonized) by their religious faith. That task would be easier, and Under a Spell considerably more effective, if the beliefs of the Yucatan people had been better explained. Carrera merely suggests the presence of the supernatural, leaving it to the viewer to draw his own conclusions about what is real and what is imagined. (Monday, February 22, 9:30 p.m.)

-- Judy Cantor

The four friends at the center of the smart 1998 Venezuelan social satire Little Thieves, Big Thieves (Cien Anos de Perdon) recall the motley group of male strippers in the British sleeper The Full Monty (1997). Like the underdogs of that film, the foursome in Thieves is composed of desperate victims of a depressed economy. But the get-rich-quick scheme they devise involves risking their butts, not just showing them.

The film is set during the very real 1994 Venezuelan bank scandal, when the nation's financial institutions were bushwhacked by embezzling officials. The corruption was so widespread that eighteen commercial banks were closed or seized by the government, a fiasco that cost Venezuelan taxpayers $11 billion. (Many of the former bankers remain at large.) Like other middle-class Venezuelans, Horacio, Valmore, Rogelio, and Vicente struggle to keep afloat in a crime-ridden Caracas, where the dollar rules over worthless Venezuelan currency. It's the week before Christmas, and Valmore, a high school history teacher, has hit a new low: His car has been stolen, he has no insurance, and on his salary he won't even be able to afford a bike. The other three men find themselves in similarly dire circumstances.

Horacio, who has been fired from his job at a major bank, comes up with an idea. "Those scumbags from the bank are enjoying other people's money," he tells his friends. "Don't they deserve a little shit from us?" Having discovered that his former employer is the next bank to be taken over by the government, Horacio hatches a plan: The four will pose as inspectors and demand to examine the bank's books; once they have infiltrated the bank's computer system they will siphon money into an offshore account they have set up.

Not surprisingly the heist goes awry, but it would be a crime to reveal the turn of events in detail here. The upshot is that the men become unwitting whistleblowers on corruption that reaches beyond the banking industry all the way up to the government. The would-be bank robbers are celebrated as heroes by the bank employees and customers they take as hostages, while a crowd of citizens that gathers outside to "denounce the embezzlement of a nation" cheers them on.

Like the salsa song that opens the film, Little Thieves, Big Thieves (in Spanish with English subtitles) moves along snappily, with the players never missing a beat. Fine ensemble acting by the leads (Orlando Urdaneta, Daniel Lugo, Aroldo Betancourt, and Mariano Alvarez) makes real the relationships between the four long-time buddies, and they're aided by a supporting cast that convincingly depicts a slice of Venezuelan life.

Born in Buenos Aires, director Alejandro Saderman has lived in Venezuela since 1977. Commissioned by the United Nations, he made The Time Bomb (1986), a documentary about Latin America's foreign debt. His knowledge of current affairs is evident in Little Thieves, Big Thieves, his second feature, which ultimately comes across as light, but hardly lightweight. Its gritty production values and succinct social commentary sometimes recall the biting, dark, early-Eighties comedies of Spanish director Pedro Almodovar. (Sunday, February 21, 2:00 p.m.)

-- Judy Cantor


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