It's only a few days until a taste of the annual Miami International Film Festival (MIFF) invades the newly renovated Tower Theater in Little Havana. The name of the minifest — MIFFecito — is a play on the cafecitos so prevalent in the neighborhood. MIFF executive director Jaie Laplante says the idea behind it is to give festival members and local indie and mainstream cinema fans a "fix" of the main fest, due to return to Miami in March 2015.
"I feel the same electricity that I feel every March when it's finally time to share the films we've programmed with the Miami audience," Laplante says. "It's a special moment for the filmmakers too and in working with them all year to get to this point. There's that moment of excitement and nervousness while you wait to see if what you intended to communicate gets received by the audience."
Laplante invited New Times to preview some of the selections at the Tower Theater. What follows are reviews of several of MIFFecito's films.
Lake Los Angeles. 9 p.m. Saturday, October 18, and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, October 19. Actor Roberto Sanchez will appear at the screenings to introduce the film and hold a Q&A session afterward. With Lake Los Angeles, director/writer Mike Ott presents a low-key but heart-rending portrait of the often-solitary pain of undocumented immigrants. Ott effectively uses a quiet cinematic delivery that creeps up on the viewer for a simple, devastating finale that raises small gestures to noble acts of kindness and may just redeem humanity in the face of a harsh, lonely life.
Lake Los Angeles is about the thin but resilient connection between two disparate people bonded by their solitude after being separated from their families. A 10-year-old Mexican girl, Cecilia (Johanna Trujillo), hopes to connect with a father she never met. Francisco (Roberto "Sanz" Sanchez) is a middle-aged Cuban man in charge of watching over migrants in a way house. He grows connected to Cecilia as she silently waits for her father while the nights pass and others in her group gradually trickle away.
The film spends time with them as travelers, inevitably separated, alone in thought. The performances become offscreen monologues and silent faces. It's a rather still movie, sometimes languorous, but it harnesses the power of simplicity to make a point that is both simple and raw. Lake Los Angeles is for the patient viewer, but the reward hits like a ton of bricks. — Hans Morgenstern
Life Feels Good. 6 p.m. Sunday, October 19. Is everybody ready for the feel-good flick of MIFFecito? Because as much of a downer as Life Feels Good might read — a film that chronicles decades of the life of a young man with cerebral palsy who longs to be understood by those around him — it actually strives to be an ultra-relatable testament to how anyone can find happiness in life, even in the direst situation.
The film doesn't deprive the audience of the harshness of living with cerebral palsy, yet it also tries too hard to overwhelm the audience with sentimentality that doesn't come off as genuine.
A fair chunk covers the childhood of Mateusz, but a massive portion takes place in his teens and 20s. Relationships are established and demolished, and Mateusz is forced to live in a sort of nursing home that resembles an asylum.
Though done somewhat clumsily, the film establishes that life inside is surprisingly similar to life outside, no matter how unfortunate it all seems. But even with its issues, Life Feels Good will play well to most audiences, especially for those who wished The Diving Bell and the Butterfly were a bit more light-hearted. — Juan Barquin
Paradise. 9:30 p.m. Saturday, October 18. Director Mariana Chenillo will be present to introduce the film and hold a Q&A session afterward. In Hollywood movies, fat people are often the butt of jokes, and more often than not, obese actors take the parts to make careers exploiting themselves for ridicule. What makes Mexican director Mariana Chenillo's Paradise so refreshing is that it doesn't look down on the two large leads and balances a sense of humor with heart. Carmen (Daniela Rincón) and her husband, Alfredo (Andrés Almedia), are two chubby people in love. They call each other "gorda" and "gordo" with nothing but affection. Opening the film with a closeup of their love-making, Chenillo shows no shame in their size.
When they move from the suburbs of Ciudad Satélite to the center of Mexico City, however, things change. After overhearing a conversation between two skinny bitches at a company party ridiculing her and her husband's girths, Carmen tries to diet. Alfredo joins reluctantly, but it turns out he's the only one losing weight. Complications in the relationship ensue. Chenillo's ability to frame the couple's story with empathy cuts to the deeper problems that transcend issues of body image. Marriage is never really a case of happily ever after, and Chenillo considers the changes as a chance to show characters who unconditionally love each other but must face a change that could either bring them together or tear them apart. — Hans Morgenstern
Raiz. 7:30 p.m. Friday, October 17, and 6:30 p.m. Saturday, October 18. To say that Chilean film Raiz is languorously paced is no stretch, and while some might consider that trait a treat when it comes to contemplative cinema, it certainly isn't in this case.
Raiz, also known as Root, tells the story of two individuals who find themselves with little to no family to call their own. Amalia returns home to a bitter mother who, after berating her daughter for not being able to handle her own life, heads off with the son of her live-in maid to find his father.
Raiz is the kind of film that doesn't exactly know when to lay off the heavy-handed themes — specifically that of family issues and the problematic relationship between mother and child — and doesn't have a nearly strong enough narrative to support those themes through an entire feature. What it lacks in story and interesting characterization, it attempts to make up for with solid vérité cinematography; the emphasis on the characters' isolation is a rather strong quality in an altogether frustrating film. There's a fair chance Raiz would have found better footing as a short, but at almost an hour and a half, it's a slog to watch. — Juan Barquin
Vara: A Blessing. 7 p.m. Saturday, October 18. Khyentse Norbu's Vara: A Blessing begins strong, introducing audiences to Lila, a young woman who practices the art of bharatanatyam, a classical Indian dance that evokes the art of temple dancers. In its first act, the film proposes a bit of a flip on the typical route for women that involves choosing men over religion, presenting a girl who genuinely has no interest in being married. The film soon leaves reality and indulges in fantasy sequences of Lila falling into romantic situations with God.
Its problems, however, come early in the second act, when Lila's narrative ditches all semblance of character development. This section's depiction of the male gaze is as impressive as it gets, with the leering eyes of the community's landlord resulting in constant quick cuts and closeups of hands, faces, shoulders, and feet. Yet Vara takes pains to present as much of a female perspective in its first act as possible, which makes the midfilm shift and everything that follows so much more disorienting.
The film's most successful moments can be attributed to its cinematographer, Bradford Young — one of the best around right now — who consistently delivers images that make an audience question what it's viewing and explore the dichotomy between the Bollywood dancer and the spiritual performer. — Juan Barquin