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What to Watch at the Miami Film Festival 2021

Apples takes an absurd yet simple premise and mines it for revelations about human nature through deadpan dark comedy.
Apples takes an absurd yet simple premise and mines it for revelations about human nature through deadpan dark comedy.
Photo courtesy of the Miami Film Festival
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Almost a year ago, the Miami Film Festival (MFF) commenced its 37th edition, only to have it conclude early as coronavirus spread across the nation.

A lot has transpired since then, with respect to the pandemic and the film-festival circuit alike. During the lockdown, numerous festivals recalibrated how they approach the work of enjoying and experiencing cinema. Like many other festivals, MFF conducted its fall festival, Gems, in a cautious virtual format.

Returning this year with a smaller selection of films, the festival will utilize a hybrid approach of live, in-person events and virtual screenings. From the Miami premiere of Pedro Almodóvar and Tilda Swinton’s pandemic production, The Human Voice, to Miami-made Ludi's opening-night premiere, there are many highlights to enjoy.

In addition to the films, keep an eye out for special virtual presentations with Almodóvar, Oscar contender Riz Ahmed, and recent Golden Globe winner Andra Day. And don't sleep on getting a ticket to one of the festival’s best additions in recent years, the Knight Heroes talk. This year’s series focuses on four accomplished female filmmakers in conversation: Radha Blank, Gina Prince-Bythewood, Adele Romanski, and Amy Seimetz.

But, of course, this is a film festival, after all. So here are four movies worth checking out either virtually or in-person.

Apples

Director Christos Nikou proved prophetic with his enigmatic and intriguing feature debut, Apples, which is set amid a global pandemic in which people find themselves struck with inexplicable and incurable amnesia. Like other films that have been labeled the "Greek Weird Wave," Apples takes an absurd yet simple premise and mines it for revelations about human nature through deadpan dark comedy.

The latest victim of the pandemic, Aris (Aris Servetalis), awakens on a bus, not knowing where he came from or where he's going. When no one comes to claim him in the hospital, Aris enters into a new government rehabilitation program in which patients construct new identities by completing seemingly random tasks like riding a bike, jumping from a great height, having a one-night stand, and driving a car. The tasks range from the farcical to the banal, but their juxtaposition reveals the components and conception of identity. The film is like a blueprint for an existential Buster Keaton comedy.

A distant, clinical camera coupled with intentionally taciturn performances creates a peculiar and cerebral film that's subtle, funny, and fresh. Toward the end, Apples loses some focus, but its open-endedness allows you to ruminate on the core concept of identity. The film asks if we are made by what we can remember or by what we would like to forget. It's an acquired taste in the best way, and it has the potential to divide viewers — like apples and oranges — but that’s also the sign of a film worth watching. 2:30 p.m. Saturday, March 6, at Silverspot Cinema, 300 SE Third St., Miami. Virtual screening at noon Sunday, March 7. – Trae DeLellis

Cortex has no real emotional throughline to the story and no interest in characters.
Cortex has no real emotional throughline to the story and no interest in characters.
Photo courtesy of the Miami Film Festival

Cortex — Are You Awake?

Moritz Bleibtreu’s Cortex — Are You Awake? is an often-fascinating feature debut. Where many actors pivot to filmmaking via something of a bland biopic designed to showcase the performers at their core, Bleibtreu’s work here is surprisingly ambitious. Describing the film beyond the simple theme of two men’s lives intertwining requires something of a Herculean effort, as it constantly attempts to trip up the viewer.

These men navigate the realms of both dreams and reality in a way that feels like an imitation of a Christopher Nolan film (even outright referencing Inception once). Its dreamy editing betrays whatever simplicity could exist in the German thriller buried underneath a lot of mystery-box scripting, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. The way it plays with nonlinear storytelling, cutting between scenes and characters on a whim, is exciting at first and eventually exhausting when Bleibtreu retreads the same events while trying to imbue them with grander meaning.

As such, Cortex has no real emotional throughline and no interest in its characters beyond using them as pieces of a puzzle it has no interest in solving. Bleibtreu's movie trades in the grand set pieces of Nolan’s films for convoluted construction, rarely leaning into the kind of playfulness the latter filmmaker consistently delivers. It's a polished work, smooth enough to convince the viewer that more might be buried beneath its appealing aesthetics. But it never manages to probe beyond the artifice, much less expose anything approaching depth. 4:30 p.m. Sunday, March 14, at Silverspot Cinema, 300 SE Third St., Miami. – Juan Antonio Barquin

Mogul Mowgli wields illness as a metaphor with surprising potency.
Mogul Mowgli wields illness as a metaphor with surprising potency.
Photo courtesy of the Miami Film Festival

Mogul Mowgli

Riz Ahmed plays a musician on the cusp of stardom who's derailed by a sudden degenerative medical condition. One could easily confuse this synopsis with last year’s Sound of Metal, but in this case, it also summarizes Mogul Mowgli, which screens at this year’s festival, at which Ahmed will be presented with a special award. Both films certainly showcase him as one of his generation’s most intriguing talents, and Mogul Mowgli spotlights Ahmed as a bona fide triple threat as actor, writer, and rapper.

Mogul Mowgli wields illness as a metaphor with surprising potency. In the film, New York-based rapper Zed (Ahmed) returns to London before embarking on a European tour. At home, he is confronted by family tensions exacerbated by a sudden illness diagnosed as a genetic autoimmune deficiency. The mysterious malady conveys the divisions in Zed’s world, between his body and mind, between his father and himself, and between the East and the West. Mogul Mowgli is a dense and rewarding film that interrogates family, illness, and legacy in a formidable and exhilarating way.

In his debut feature, director and cowriter Bassam Tariq utilizes cinematic technique to externalize Zed’s divided sense of self with great mastery. A compacted ratio gives the film a claustrophobic feel that echoes Zed’s entrapment by his failing body. Tariq and Ahmed balance this sense of enclosure through their electric story structure that has Zed confronting his past through dreams and visions, imbuing the film with a visceral and illuminating punch. The technique matches and enhances the central performances by Ahmed and Alyy Khan as Zed’s father, in a beautifully stoic and restrained performance.

At one point, a haunting figure from Zed’s past proclaims, “I am the sickness of this separation.” It’s the central thesis the film exquisitely revolves around. Few films manage to give weight to the relationship between past, present, and future in both continuity and disjuncture. In exposing how illness can cause you to face your past and future when you are trapped in the present. Mogul Mowgli is confident, daring, and memorable. Virtual screening at noon Saturday, March 13. — Trae DeLellis

The Pink Cloud chooses to explore an abundance of conflicting emotions through its characters in a quiet manner.
The Pink Cloud chooses to explore an abundance of conflicting emotions through its characters in a quiet manner.
Photo courtesy of the Miami Film Festival

The Pink Cloud

Iuli Gerbase’s The Pink Cloud clearly states at its start that it “was written in 2017 and shot in 2019,” and “any resemblance to actual events is purely coincidental.” Such a statement is only necessary in a film that revolves entirely around lockdown in an era that has placed us under similar guidelines. Where our world still allows us to exist in public, the one the characters of The Pink Cloud are faced with is far more tragic: A pink cloud that kills humans within ten seconds has forced everyone to exist exclusively within whatever space they occupied when it struck.

For Giovana and Yago, two strangers who wind up locked in together, life becomes a condensed oddity. Their relationship develops happily at first, but each passing month brings more obstacles when there is nowhere to go. Each passing year, then, gets even harder. In isolation, life becomes something entirely different, and Gerbase’s film is full of an ache for something that no longer exists. The world of The Pink Cloud is bleaker than our own, each pleasant moment its figures find within the comfort of the space they exist in passing by in an instant.

Gerbase rather interestingly stretches out a simple text by condensing years of existence into a hundred minutes. Though it does tend to drag on a bit, there's something familiar about the way its running time disappears but its moments last. Despite being set entirely within a single location, the camera style changes subtly over time, though with a gorgeous pink hue populating every daytime frame. Often screens appear within the screen, providing some external connection for the characters trapped inside, but Gerbase is aware that the virtual realm is no substitution for the world at large.

Renata de Lélis and Eduardo Mendonça make for a compelling couple to watch throughout, and the film is far less interested in scripting loud fights than many chamber dramas might. The Pink Cloud instead settles on a quiet manner to explore an abundance of conflicting emotions through its characters. One might wonder if the film would be less effective if it weren’t for the current state of the world, but there’s enough in Gerbase’s feature debut to make it a curious and worthwhile watch. 8 p.m. Saturday, March 6, at Silverspot Cinema, 300 SE Third St., Miami. Virtual screening at noon Sunday, March 7. – Juan Antonio Barquin

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