Screen Tests

You will give yourself a migraine if you attempt to divine a theme running through the 26 films that make up the fifteenth Miami Film Festival. Don't bother trying. A readily apparent theme does not exist -- not that one needs to. International in everything but name, this year's renewal of the festival, as has been the custom in the past, leans heavily on recent Spanish-language releases (ten), while also corralling works from the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, Norway, Austria, France, Italy, and Russia. (All foreign-language films will be screened with English subtitles.)

The lineup includes four Academy Award nominees for Best Foreign Language Film: The Thief (Russia), The Best Man (Italy), Junk Mail (Norway), and Secrets of the Heart (Spain). Additionally, the festival honors two filmmakers this year -- Italy's venerable Michelangelo Antonioni and Japan's Takeshi Kitano -- by presenting a pair of films by each director: Identification of a Woman and Beyond the Clouds (Antonioni), Sonatine and Fireworks (Kitano). The festival opens Friday, January 30, and runs through Sunday, February 8, at the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts, 174 E. Flagler St., Miami. Call 305-372-0925 for tickets.

Six full-length reviews follow; see page 34 for short takes on other festival films. Festival schedule appears on page 33. New Times coverage of the fest concludes next issue.

The first frames of The Chambermaid and the Titanic suggest that we've been plunged into the fury of Hell itself, or at least into the caldron of an active volcano. A molten substance, yellow-hot as lava, flows in thick rivers of fire, sloshing and seething in the surrounding darkness. As we soon learn, however, this is simply a French foundry in 1912, and as the camera follows sooty workers slogging through mud and onto the train that will take them home, we see post-Industrial Revolution Europe as they saw it. This is a bleak, dirty, monochromatic world in which the monotony of grinding, hard labor is punctuated by the sparest of pleasures: a glass of brandy at a bar, a soothing bath administered by a loving wife.

One of the many lovely surprises in this French-Spanish-Italian collaboration is that this inhospitable environment is eventually revealed to be, against all odds, the source of an amazingly fertile imagination. Among the foundry workers is Horty, a handsome, amiable young man devoted to his pretty milkmaid wife Zoe (the remarkable Romane Bohringer). As played by the blindingly charismatic Olivier Martinez, Horty is an unassuming but natural charmer, a man of few words who nevertheless inspires the respect (and perhaps envy) of his fellow workers. No one is surprised when, for the third year in a row, Horty wins a company competition in which employees engage in a sort of working-class triathlon.

Horty's prize, presented with great fanfare by the foundry president, is a trip across the English Channel to witness the launching of the Titanic, already famous as a symbol of man's mastery of technology. The catch is that the trip is for one -- the boss has designs on Zoe -- so a fresh-scrubbed Horty arrives in England alone.

Just as deftly as he has acknowledged class differences at the foundry, Spanish director (and cowriter) Bigas Luna establishes Horty as a stranger in a strange land. Even in his best clothes, the poor Frenchman is clearly a foreigner among the pristine buildings and stylishly attired people of Southampton. It therefore makes sense when he agrees to let a stranded chambermaid from the Titanic share his hotel room. She too is French, not to mention a radiant beauty. The chambermaid Marie (Spanish actress Aitana Sanchez-Gijón), makes a fairly brazen attempt to seduce Horty. Although he's tempted, he reluctantly resists. When he awakens she's gone, and he last glimpses her as she poses for a photograph while loading luggage onto the ship.

At this point the story appears to have reached a dead end. What could possibly sustain it further? Marie is on the ship, whose fate we know; even on the slim chance that she's a survivor, it's unlikely she would return to seek out the man who rejected her. But director Luna, best known in the United States for 1992's piquant Jamón, Jamón, has much more in store. He sends Horty, with the photo of Marie, back to France, where he picks up on gossip that the promotion awaiting him at work is the result of his wife's infidelity. The devastated Horty retreats to the tavern. To compensate for the betrayal he feels, he begins to embellish his memories of the unconsummated romance, spinning an increasingly elaborate account of sexual escapades for an eager audience of villagers.

It would be criminal to divulge the intricately linked series of twists that propel the plot from here on. Suffice it to say that the movie becomes a meditation on the nature and significance of storytelling. We slip back and forth in time with Horty, in and out of memories and fantasies, until the line between real and imagined is hopelessly blurred -- which is the point. Fact and fiction, the story suggests, are symbiotic.

Was it cunning or coincidence that landed The Chambermaid and the Titanic the high-profile slot of the festival's opening-night film? (Before you answer, take into account the American public's continuing fascination with all things Titanic-related.) No matter. The film is good enough to render the question irrelevant. (Friday, January 30, 7:30 p.m.)

-- Michael Mills

Acclaimed Argentine filmmaker Maria Luisa Bemberg died in the middle of making El Imposter (The Impostor), and the project was taken over by her assistant director Alejandro Maci, who made it his feature debut. Set in the pampas outside Buenos Aires, the story -- a kind of gothic fairy tale that takes place in the '30s -- is based on Silvina Ocampo's novel of the same name. It's a stylized, literary story -- one that, at least in this version, doesn't translate well to the screen.

We first hear of the young Sebastian Heredia (Antonio Birabent) as we eavesdrop on a conversation between his concerned parents and their doctor, a family friend. Disturbed that their twentysomething son has locked himself up in their country home and is refusing to communicate with his family, the Heredias convince their friend to send his son Juan to suss out the situation. Juan (Walter Quiroz) isn't particularly sophisticated, and his cover story -- that the purpose of his visit is to study birds -- doesn't fool Sebastian for a moment.

The problem is, we don't know what to think of Juan's agenda either. Were he and Sebastian ever good friends? Does Juan care about Sebastian's mental health? It's not clear. At first Juan doesn't find out much at all about Sebastian -- only that he's frustrated at being unable to remember his dreams. Juan, on the other hand, begins to have nightmares. We do learn that Sebastian had a failed love affair with a woman named Maria Olsen, and in fact a Danish family by that name lives in town. But the local pharmacist's niece -- who calls herself Teresita -- wears a necklace that says "Maria." Juan, who starts up a flirtation with Teresita, wonders if perhaps she's Sebastian's Maria. And who is that beautiful, silent, young blond woman who flits by from time to time?

A whole lot of mystery but not much direction. The cheesy visual effects that punctuate the film -- colored filters and negative images -- distract us rather than lead us further into the story. The Impostor has its roots in the nineteenth-century gothic tradition, which concocted ghosts and hallucinations and feverish dreams to indicate trouble in a character's unconscious. In our day such phenomena have been demystified by our understanding of psychology, not to mention decades of exposure to the films of Alfred Hitchcock. So when such a story manages to succeed this late in the century, it's because it's exquisitely told and because the emotional stakes are something we care about.

The press notes for The Imposter imply that Maci reworked parts of Bemberg's screenplay (the two share screenwriting credits with Jorge Goldenberg), but it's difficult to know whether Maci was hampered by having to follow in Bemberg's footsteps or whether he merely didn't know what he was doing. At any rate what's altogether missing is a sense of timing, particularly in the unfolding of details that lead to the central mystery. Instead the film meanders through the more banal details of Sebastian and Juan's time together, then dumps the more compelling developments into the final ten minutes. The only element that's truly haunting, in stretches, is Ricardo Aronovich's cinematography, particularly his images of an animal graveyard, which would illuminate anyone's nightmares. (Saturday, January 31, 2 p.m.)

-- Robin Dougherty

Michael Haneke wants you to rethink the way you experience cinematic violence -- the way you consider it, interpret it, feel it. With his 1997 film Funny Games, the Austrian writer-director succeeds wildly in that regard, fashioning an insidiously unsettling work that challenges -- and attempts to obliterate -- the notion of moviegoing passivity.

Funny Games opens innocently enough, with an aerial tracking shot of a sport-utility vehicle tooling along a road with a sailboat in tow. On the soundtrack we hear snippets of classical music, plus the voices of a man and a woman as they engage in a good-natured game of guess-the-composer/ guess-the-piece; moments later we see hands as they pop in discs and then eject them from the car's CD player. Significantly, though, Haneke takes a minute, perhaps longer, before cutting to actual faces. Finally he shows us an unextraordinary-looking couple, Georg and Anna, probably in their late thirties, and their son Georgie, about age twelve. They're en route to their well-manicured -- and apparently isolated -- lakeside vacation home. As soon as the family arrives, Georg and Georgie, with the help of their friend and neighbor Fred and Fred's young houseguest Paul, put the boat in the water. Fred and Paul split, and as father and son fuss around on the boat, Anna starts dinner preparations back at the house.

Seemingly out of the ether materializes shy, clumsy, clean-cut Peter, who, he explains to Anna, is also staying with Fred and Fred's wife Eva; roughly the same age as Paul (early twenties), Peter has popped by to borrow four eggs for Eva. Anna stops cutting up raw steak -- knives and dead meat figure prominently in Funny Games -- to oblige the request, but Peter breaks the eggs as he leaves -- an ominous portent of everything that follows, although we don't witness the "accident." Then as they discuss the prospect of Peter obtaining replacement eggs, he "accidentally" knocks a wireless phone in the sink, rendering it useless. Growing impatient, Anna wraps up new eggs just to get rid of the relentlessly polite Peter. He leaves, only to reappear moments later, this time accompanied by Paul. And when Georg and Georgie return to the house, Haneke has assembled his core cast in one spot to play out a terrifying drawing-room meditation on the nature of violence, both physical and psychological.

Quickly, decisively, and with persistently good manners, Peter and Paul (saintly names, mind you), both wearing white gloves, take over, immobilizing Georg with a well-placed whang to the knee with one of his own golf clubs. (This act was prompted by Georg slapping Paul, who had first provoked Georg verbally.) Again, like the eggs accident, we don't see the golf club attack, although we hear it and then are thrust visually into its aftermath. "Why are you doing this?" we hear Georg plead. "Why not?" Paul replies matter-of-factly off-screen. And with the family virtual prisoners in their own home, slowly, deliberately, Haneke turns up the violence knob, as the two young men invent a series of seemingly innocuous "games" that degenerate into wrenching, escalating misery for the family. It all climaxes with a bet: whether or not Georg, Anna, and Georgie will still be alive in twelve hours, at 9 a.m. Peter and Paul wager they won't.

"I try to find ways of representing violence as that which it always is: as inconsumable," Haneke is quoted as saying in the film's press materials. "I give back to violence that which it is: pain, a violation of others." Well, yeah. To accomplish this the filmmaker gradually pries us away from our usual expectations of screen violence -- the cartoon explosions and ridiculous bullet ballets orchestrated by Hollywood and its countless overseas imitators. Not only does he rigorously imply rather than depict physical violence, he painstakingly portrays the considerably more unnerving psychological violence that Peter and Paul visit upon the family without motive, without reason. (The pair comes across like highly twisted, contempo versions of '20s American "thrill killers" Leopold and Loeb.) Funny Games subverts our conditioned response to filmic violence, not allowing us to march numbly -- detachedly -- out of the theater, as is our custom, after ingesting a two-hour dose of shoot-'em-up mayhem. The film sticks with you, a creepy wart on the psyche.

Haneke toys with our expectations of movies in other ways, too, teasing viewers with a fleeting, fake Hollywood-style thriller resolution; and twice he has Paul turn directly to the camera -- a la George Burns on the old '50s Burns and Allen TV show -- to address the audience, consciously blurring cinematic "reality" and fiction. He wants you to remember that you're watching a film unspool. By doing this, I think, Haneke perhaps overstates his case. The narrative alone -- and a brief discussion Peter and Paul conduct at the end about matter/antimatter and reality/fiction (based on what seems to be a comic book Peter has read) -- would have sufficed.

Other filmmakers have previously addressed the subject of unalloyed psychological violence -- notably Peter Weir in his 1980 made-for-Australian-TV movie The Plumber, which also featured a disturbingly plausible home invasion -- but seldom, if ever, has it been done with such cerebral audacity as Haneke does with Funny Games. (Saturday, January 31, 4:30 p.m.)

-- Michael Yockel

Twenty-seven years ago I sat in a packed Baltimore movie house watching the just-out Summer of '42, an empty-headed coming-of-age piece of fluff wherein a well-scrubbed teenage Everyguy (Gary Grimes) loses his virginity, after much hemming and hawing, to a well-scrubbed Older Woman (Jennifer O'Neill) whose hubby has gone off to fight in World War II. At the breathless moment when it becomes apparent that they're going to "do it," with the audience hushed and dewy-eyed, one moviegoer, unable to contain himself, burst into gales of laughter. He couldn't stop. It all struck him, I guess, as absolutely absurd. At the time I was annoyed; now I know the guy was light-years ahead of the rest of us saps who were sopping up this cinematic glop.

That moment came back to me more than once as I squirmed through En Brazos de la Mujer Madura (In Praise of Older Women), Spanish director Manuel Lombardero's half-inch-deep romantic drama, adapted from Stephen Vizinczey's novel that first showed up on-screen in 1978 courtesy of Canadian filmmaker George Kaczender (who has since gone on to carve out a career for himself doing disease-of-the-week, made-for-TV movies). Kaczender's film stuck with the novel's setting (Hungary -- World War II and beyond) and premise (Hungarian dude recounts twenty years' worth of sexual exploits). First-time director Lombardero and screenwriter Rafael Azcona shift the action to Spain during that nation's late '30s civil war.

In 1937 handsome fifteen-year-old Andres (Miguel A. Garcia) takes off for the front in search of his fascist-sympathizing mom when the nearby war -- which we hear about only over the radio -- prompts his school to close. En route to who-knows-where he meets up with a scruffy band of Republican soldiers from the socialist government who've commandeered a rural inn; Andres joins them and peels potatoes for the forces of good. According to Lombardero and Azcona, war is swell: happy-go-lucky soldiers, beaming peasants delivering fresh produce, a nifty inn as barracks, picture-postcard landscape, fine weather, meals-on-wheels for the grunts in the trenches who never fire their guns. But Andres broods anyway. No babes. But wait! Straight out of nowhere, in waltzes a stuffy English duke and his take-charge American wife (a completely over-the-top Faye Dunaway), captured while motoring through the Spanish countryside on holiday. (Like many other people, the duke and duchess enjoy vacationing in a foreign nation in the midst of civil war.) Well anyway, through a series of ridiculous circumstances too dumb to recount, the duchess "breaks in" the horny Andres to the strains of tinkly, mushy music. (Cue man tittering in audience.)

Just in case you thought war was all randy married women and fresh bread, the filmmakers -- in a scene that lasts, oh, maybe 90 seconds -- quickly parade in two anonymous fascist spies and have them meet their maker via firing squad. Andres witnesses the incident, gets all broody (Faye has disappeared), and as a result is sent from the battle-free front to live with his sergeant's family in Barcelona. There he winds up in bed with Sarge's voluptuous teenage virgin daughter (Ingrid Rubio), except they don't go all the way because, you know, she's totally inexperienced.

Suddenly, war over -- just like that. Republicans out. Franco in. Andres (now played by hunky Juan Diego Botto) a few years older. His luminous mother materializes with her fascist bigwig boyfriend, who sets up Andres and mom in a stylish apartment. The guy has a great life: no job, cool clothes, might go to school. Still he broods. Bring on the babes! In quick succession, he boffs three gorgeous older women: a cheery peasant from his war days (Rosana Pastor), the married upstairs-neighbor lady (Joanna Pacula), and a touring Italian star-violinist (Florence Pernel), all of whom protest for five seconds before allowing the studly Andres to ravish them. (Much cackling here.)

Not only will In Praise of Older Women offend female moviegoers as a result of its depiction of women as nothing more than pleasure-givers, it will insult men with its portrayal of protagonist Andres as a twit who thinks with his penis. To make matters worse, Lombardero and cinematographer Jose Luis Alcaine fetishize everything: not just women's underclothes, which pop up time and again, but a radio, cigarette packs, a train, steam, smoke, buildings, ocean, land, women's breasts, fruit. Every object in this film exists as a sort of sexual accouterment -- pungent, succulent, and ripe -- mere foreplay aids. And the pair bathes it all in caressing, sunny hues of amber and gold.

But Lombardero, Azcona, and Alcaine reveal no truths. They don't even offer up any genuine passion. Ultimately they've created a world that's all surface, reduced love to sex (which they don't bother to show), and attempted to pawn off a visually attractive soft-core stroke movie as a wondrous male rites-of-passage tale. You'll die laughing. (Sunday, February 1, 9:30 p.m.)

-- Michael Yockel

French filmmaker Agnes Merlet's movie about real-life, seventeenth-century Italian artist Artemisia Gentileschi takes place in a universe it would be fun to get lost in. Filmed in the deep, rich hues of Rembrandt and Caravaggio, it evokes the luxuriousness of dark furniture, gold foil, and oil paints. In every scene people seem to be eating feasts set up by God's own caterer. The actors are, by and large, physically appealing, the costumes detailed and elaborate. Why then does the film play as flat as an unpainted canvas?

Not because of its subject matter. Based on the story of the woman Renaissance artist who dared to be taken seriously, Artemisia offers a chance for an actress to portray a firebrand and a gatecrasher. The film identifies Artemisia as "the first woman painter in the history of art" -- presumably in the Western tradition. But even if she weren't one of the earliest recognized women artists, her life would still make a great tale, if for no reason other than that she lived at a time when ideas about art were undergoing revolution. Indeed, the story turns on Artemisia's father allowing her to study with an artist who teaches a strange new concept called "perspective."

Seventeen at the time we meet her, Artemisia (Valentina Cervi) was born the daughter of Orazio Gentileschi (Michel Serrault), a court portraitist in Rome and the recipient of papal commissions to paint church frescoes. She is the happy inheritor of her father's skill. (Her mother apparently had the good sense to die before the story began.) But because she lives in Renaissance Italy, Artemisia is forbidden to enter the academy or even to use male models. That doesn't stop her from stealing candles and sketching her own nude body late at night in the convent school she attends. Caught by the nuns, Artemisia is sent home, where her father allows her to work in his atelier, finishing portraits and doing fill-in work on his paintings, destined to remain anonymous.

In its worst moments, the movie plays like a feminist docudrama. It doesn't bother to explain the frustration of being a talented woman in the Seventeenth Century. Rather it assumes we know that its heroine has some annoying obstacles to overcome. As portrayed by Cervi, Artemisia is a bundle of nervous energy and self-confidence. But director Merlet has fashioned her feminist heroine as a spunky cartoon suffragette, with her success practically foretold. The notion that she's going against every social and political grain of her time hardly comes into focus.

When the movie works, however, Cervi gives us a feel for Artemisia's voracious curiosity and talent. It's unsettling, then, that the most passionate turn of events concerns the relationship between Orazio and his artistic rival, who happens to be Artemisia's new teacher, Agostino Tassi (Miki Manojlovic). An avant-gardist who's eclipsing Orazio's fame, Tassi becomes Artemisia's teacher and her first lover. The film trips over its own feet with this latter type of instruction. Cervi does an astonishing job of depicting an intelligent woman's curiosity about sex as well as her reaction to her first experience -- a mix of excitement, fear, pleasure, and things gone way out of one's control.

In reality it's Merlet who loses control. Though the film strongly implies that Artemisia's sexual activity with Tassi was consensual and invited, the press kit states that in real life Tassi was tried for the rape of Artemisia. The activity that we see on-screen leads us to believe that the trial is little more than an attempt by Orazio to get Tassi to "save" Artemisia's reputation. (God knows what we're supposed to think when her remarkably visceral painting of the biblical Judith beheading Holofernes is introduced as evidence in court.) At any rate the heroine -- almost like the nameless, faceless women artists who preceded her -- seems to disappear inside her own story, a tiny character in the pissing contest between the men around her. (Monday, February 2, 7 p.m.)

-- Robin Dougherty

Roy, the letter carrier protagonist of Norwegian director Pol Sletaune's engaging debut, Budbringeren (Junk Mail), makes one of the strangest movie entrances in recent memory. When we first see him, he's jumping up and down like a puppy begging for a treat while his supervisor holds a box of cigarettes just out of reach. When Roy finally gets the box, he discovers it's empty. It's this sort of cruel joke that dogs Roy throughout his mail route, his nightly dinners of canned spaghetti, and his whole bleary existence. We're meant to laugh at him; that's easy given that Roy can't even get mugged -- unless it's by a sinister version of the Three Stooges.

At first Roy seems like a loser in, say, a Coen brothers film -- a guy who can't escape the institutional green paint of his surroundings any more than he get away from the gloom and dreariness of his emotional life. But Roy is no mere hapless drone who lives and works in an unidentified Norwegian town. Rather he's the puppet of bizarre cosmic forces. The surprise lurking in Junk Mail -- which has already claimed First Prize, International Critics Week, at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival and is Norway's entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the upcoming Academy Awards -- is that Sletaune's story is not just another slacker fable; it's an oddball vision of a repulsive universe with a sweet candy center.

Despite his dismal lifestyle, Roy does have his diversions. He steals mail and reads it, then returns it soiled and torn. He throws letters away. One day he picks up the keys a woman has left in her mailbox and lets himself into her apartment. Here he not only interrupts her plans for the evening but walks into an intrigue. The woman, it seems, is mixed up in a caper that's gone wrong. Roy can't resist shadowing her to find out more. The result is a picaresque black comedy that involves, among other things, one of the strangest karaoke renditions of "Born to Be Wild" that you'd ever want to see.

As a debut feature film, Junk Mail is more than a little charming. Sletaune isn't afraid to make his hero a spiteful misfit and then expect us to cheer for him. The world Roy lives in isn't just mean -- it physically menaces him with blood, barf, and hallways painted the color of phlegm. As Roy, Robert Skj3/4rstad gives a deft performance, creating a character who seems to defy the ineptness of his entire existence. As Line, the woman Roy stalks, Andrine S3/4ther is both wily and childlike at the same time.

But Junk Mail suffers from a pat and shallow ending. At its heart it's nothing more than a movie about a guy we're meant to applaud for stalking a girl, breaking into her apartment, and "saving" her from a bad situation. Gee, doesn't anyone meet at parties any more? Of course Sletaune and screenplay cowriter Jonny Halberg (with Sletaune) are not alone in this all-too-common filmmaking fantasy. In fact, conceived any other way, Roy would be the rare movie hero who doesn't become obsessed with the object of his desire and is later rewarded by following her around in inappropriate ways. Those of you who have never been stalked may well wonder, "What's the big deal?" Among other things, there's nothing about Line that convinces us she's meant for him, or that he's meant for her. And if we don't believe that, it doesn't matter what's in the mail. (Tuesday, February 3, 7 p.m.)

-- Robin Dougherty

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