Javier Bardem and Laura Morante in The Dancer Upstairs

Goodbye to All That

You could feel the frisson in the air inside the darkened theaters of this year's Miami International Film Fest. For many in the attending audiences, the onscreen themes of a besieged middle class amid insurgent revolutions, endemic civic corruption, and economic crisis weren't abstract concepts. Those were precisely what led them to emigrate from their native Latin America to Miami.

Of course politics have never been far from Latin cinema, and the Ibero-American highlights from this most recent festival were no exception. But what was striking was the decisive ideological break much of this cinematic new wave marked. There was precious little Yankee-Go-Home-ism in the best of these offerings. Instead, as U.S. viewers will discover when these pictures hit our theaters and HBO this spring, a fresh crop of Latin filmmakers have stopped solely blaming their hulking northern neighbor for their nations' problems, and started looking closer to home.

"It's the mantra of the old guard," Y Tu Mamá También director Alfonso Cuarón explained to the Guardian when asked why the Mexican Film Academy had refused to submit his much-praised 2002 film for Oscar consideration. That Y Tu Mamá También had nonetheless received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay only confirmed Cuarón's disgust for traditional Mexican cineastes: "If you don't have a naked Marxist ideology, then you're a reactionary. If you have a strong story and production values, then you're a Hollywood wannabe. And if you enjoy any success abroad, you're a sellout. Thankfully, a lot of the new generation is tossing off that old prejudice."

That much was clear from the Miami Film Festival's presentation of The Dancer Upstairs. With Spain's Javier Bardem starring as a Peruvian police investigator, the film is based on the 1992 capture of Shining Path guerrilla leader Abimael Guzman and the teetering between anarchy and military rule to which his terrorist strikes pushed Peru. Although directed by American actor John Malkovich (his debut behind the camera), The Dancer Upstairs was financed by a Madrid-based outfit, and almost entirely cast, crewed, and shot in Ecuador, Portugal, and Spain; Malkovich aside, it's hard to consider it anything but a Latin film made for an international audience.

The resultant aesthetic distance from Los Angeles was apparent: Though propelled by a suspenseful narrative, engrossing cinematography, and a downright haunting soundtrack that transposed Nina Simone to the Andes, it was refreshingly free of Hollywood's usual romanticization of leftist guerrillas.

"I hate gringo films," Malkovich griped to the British press upon the release of The Dancer Upstairs there this past November. "I go places and people are never that exotic, they're just people." In that spirit, consider Malkovich the first foreign enlistee in Cuarón's "new generation"; the two directors have had to wage similar battles.

Despite the presumed marquee names its director and lead actor provide, Malkovich had to look overseas for funding after being personally turned down by American producers from Steven Spielberg to Disney head Michael Eisner. Even then, The Dancer Upstairs was forced to travel the festival circuit usually reserved for up-and-coming indies -- despite the rave reviews that greeted its European release. It was finally bought by Fox Searchlight at last January's Sundance, and opens in Miami on April 30.

Part of this resistance may have been over the film's message, and its overt parallels to the current hunt for Osama bin Laden. Given that the political tenor in much of Hollywood deems Attorney General John Ashcroft more of a domestic threat than al Qaeda, Malkovich's corrective was no doubt bitter medicine.

As the movie's violence escalates and the Shining Path's suicide bombers begin their deadly work, one of Lima's ladies who lunch blithely scoffs: "Is there a revolution? I need to know what to wear." She may as well have been in Beverly Hills -- or Bal Harbour.

Ultimately Bardem's lovestruck officer -- gamely attempting to defend the notion of classic liberalism in the face of terror -- is just as clueless. Upon discovering the object of his infatuation is not only a Shining Path member, but has been hiding Guzman above her apartment, he's dumbfounded. "She didn't understand what was going on!" he cries as his would-be lover is hauled off to jail. At the Gusman Theater screening, the Anglos in the audience, conditioned to rationalize away fanaticism, may have been sympathetic. But the Latinos present had no patience for such naiveté: Bardem's protestations produced a wave of loud groans.

A similar wake-up call was heralded by the festival's Balseros, set to appear on HBO. In the intimate examination of Cuba's 1994 rafter exodus, Spanish directors Carles Bosch and Josep Doménech wisely eschew the cloying agitprop that has marred so many exile-produced works. Just as carefully, though, they sidestep the revolutionary prism through which all too many explorations of Cuba fall prey. Taking a cue from the classic British documentary 7-UP, they simply let their camera's subjects do the talking, following seven different Cubans as they take to the sea, are intercepted and interned at Guantánamo Bay, and eventually allowed to resettle in the U.S. Then, seven years later, Bosch and Doménech check back in.

Aside from being an at-times heartbreaking meditation on the appeal of the American Dream, Balseros also serves up one of the most honest looks yet at the reality of modern Cuban society. Footage of Fidel Castro leading a 1994 "Socialism or Death!" concert rally -- with thousands raucously cheering el jefe and a propulsive salsa band -- is juxtaposed with a group of hopeful rafters on the other side of Havana. There, the ones about to take to the sea load their homemade boat onto a large truck. For the $30 going rate, they'll all get a ride to the shore.

Yet this operation is hardly clandestine: The entire neighborhood comes out to cheer their departure, and as the truck roars off across town, a fleet of bicyclists trail joyously behind it. Obviously, behind the façade of state-managed rallies lie some very different opinions on socialism. It's a lesson that shouldn't be lost on those now basing their opposition to a war with Iraq on dire forecasts of the "Arab street" reaction.

More unmaskings were displayed in Argentine director Pablo Trapero's El Bonaerense, a gorgeously filmed portrait of a country bumpkin who joins the infamous Buenos Aires police force. An officer on the take is hardly a novel subject, but Trapero's sympathy for his all-too-human characters is -- especially when he shows them suffering against paychecks that never arrive, a mayor who refuses to budget gasoline for their patrol cars, and an equally amoral populace.

"It's a big contradiction," Trapero told Kulchur, "but Argentina's bad economy and the political mess has actually been good for the arts. It's brewing a whole new wave of creativity." He pointed to Lucrecia Martel and her La Ciénaga as an example. Martel's damning film fingered the Argentine elite's own malaise and decadence for their society's travails -- not the International Monetary Fund. And lest anyone miss the symbolism as Martel's wealthy family members drunkenly stagger around their countryside estate, it's the "gringo doctor" they turn their noses at who repeatedly, and thanklessly, tends to their bloody gashes as they clumsily knock over their wine and fall into the shards of broken glass.

When La Ciénaga played here at Coral Gables's Absinthe House in November 2001, it was met with more than a few angry walkouts from Argentineans who considered its message insulting, if not downright unpatriotic.

What a difference a year makes. In the wake of Argentina's December 2001 economic implosion, its stream of Miami-bound emigrants has become a flood. Even the Argentine consul concedes the true number of exiles here is five times the "official" census figure of 19,000 -- many of whom enthusiastically applauded the festival's packed North Miami Beach screening of El Bonaerense, uncomfortable lessons and all.

Despite becoming one of last year's biggest hits in Argentina, El Bonaerense remains undistributed in the U.S., and as one patron explained to Kulchur in the lobby afterward, he doesn't expect that status to change -- though not because the film is poor. This former Argentine police officer could attest to the picture's accuracy. But, he explained with a laugh, Americans were blasé about police corruption. Argentineans on the other hand, for all their professed worldliness, were still waking up to reality. Our ex-officer had a more pressing matter, though. He and his friends had heard the buzz on La Ciénaga. Could Kulchur get them a video copy?


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