The Miami Film Festival’s minifest, Gems, returns for a third year this week. The festival has long catered to Miami’s Spanish-speaking audience, bringing films from Latin America and Spain to the Tower Theater. New Times was granted a preview of two films from Spain that would otherwise not play stateside because neither has U.S. distribution: Can’t Say Goodbye and No, a Flamenco Tale.
Each offers viewers a different experience: one gloomy and staid, and the other buoyant and sometimes even avant-garde in its narrative. But both alternately speak to the importance of family and music to the European nation.
Let’s get the grim stuff out of the way first. In Can’t Say Goodbye, two estranged sisters come together over the impending death of their father. José Luis (Juan Diego) has been diagnosed with cancer. It can be treated, but it would destroy his quality of life and only slightly prolong it before the inevitable. On the other hand, he can enter palliative care to live out his final days with lucidness. Carla (Nathalie Poza) doesn’t quite have her act together. Frivolous in love, addicted to cocaine, and unhappy at work, she would like to see Dad receive treatment. It comes from a selfish place. Meanwhile, Blanca (Lola Dueñas, a familiar face to Almodóvar fans) has an inattentive slacker husband and back-talking young daughter. She would like to see Dad slip away peacefully. She is the selfless one.
This is the crux of the familial conflict in the debut feature by Lino Escalera, who wrote the story with screenwriter Pablo Remón. The film wastes no time establishing José Luis’ illness, opening with a black screen with the sound of his coughing, which the actor handles quite well throughout the film. Nuances such as these make the film. As tough as the decision and divide between the sisters is, the film shows conflict in a passive manner. Instead of arguing about their opposing views of what is best for their father, Carla kidnaps Dad to take him to a hospital Barcelona for treatment.
This passive-aggressive conflict can be a challenge to transmit. Lingering shots often pause on the internal conflict of these divided family members. These pauses on contemplative moments too often focus on the backs of actors’ heads, crippling the film’s slight drama. This is especially a letdown when, early on, Dueñas offers a stunning single-take emotional breakdown while Blanca drives her father and sister from the doctor’s office. These are capable actors who give strong performances to the camera, yet the camera seems to prefer to shoot them from behind. It adds a distancing effect to what should be a much more intimate experience.
Can’t Say Goodbye. 5 p.m. Sunday, October 15, at Tower Theater, 1508 SW Eighth St., Miami; 305-237-2463; towertheatermiami.com. Tickets cost $13 via gems2017.miamifilmfestival.com. Director Lino Escalera will be present for a Q&A after the film. He will also be at the Can’t Say Goodbye Brunch at Ella’s Oyster Bar at 11 a.m. to close out the festival.
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In the tightly paced and often hypnotizing No, a Flamenco Tale. First-time feature filmmaker José Luis Tirado trains his camera on No (dancer Noemí Martínez Chico). She’s a character dancing through a loose narrative that’s not so much a story or even a dance but an expression of flamenco and how it fits into the mundane world that inspires it. Flamenco music becomes part of a bike ride, a visit to a bank, and even a shower. With each segment, Tirado, who also did some choreography with Chico and others, finds a new element of flamenco to highlight. Foot-stomping becomes a focal point during a static, aerial view of a spiral staircase. The echoes of the architecture magnify the percussive power of the steps of No as she climbs the stairs. Tirado isolates the musicality of the steps by denying the audience a clear image of the dancer, as the shadowy figure heads upward.
Throughout the film, Tirado seems determined to find ways to isolate elements of the distinctive Spanish art form while also celebrating it. If he isn’t using a setting to assist in focusing on gestures and elements of flamenco, he actually splits the screen: for instance, grounding the dancer’s plaintive singing in the shower to her feet by showing only her shoulders up and shins down in horizontal split-screen. Sometimes the film possesses an avant-garde quality, which is dictated more by musicality than its narrative. The film is edited in such a way that even radio static and bicycle bells become music. One overreach in the production is the annoying squish of No's spaghetti twirling on her fork while she stares at the TV news as read by digitally cartoonish anchors who often speak backward to images of chaos in other parts of the world. It’s an odd moment — not musical enough and overly aware of making a statement.
But the film soars in portraying the joy of the art of flamenco. No can spontaneously dance through a bank, as recorded by security cameras, and never break character, even as she is being escorted out by an employee. From the lashing of guitar strings to the wails that often accent lyrics, flamenco is an intense art form, but it’s also beautiful in its expressive quality, and Tirado has found a way to use the art of cinema to highlight the details of what makes this art so distinctive and moving.
No, a Flamenco Tale. 9:30 p.m. Friday, October 13, and 3 p.m. Sunday, October 15, at Tower Theater, 1508 SW Eighth St., Miami; 305- 237-2463; towertheatermiami.com. Tickets cost $13 via gems2017.miamifilmfestival.com.