Schizoid Celluloid

As it enters its 13th season, the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival continues to evolve far beyond its humble origins in the mid-'80s. Is that good or bad? A little of both, perhaps.

The Greater Fort Lauderdale Film Festival, as it was called once upon a time, was primarily a showcase for English-language independent films, and, although British and Australian movies turned up in the mix, the emphasis was heavily American. Then over the years more foreign-language films crept into the lineup as the festival grew to include both more titles and more diverse titles. In its earliest incarnations, the festival was sort of like a brunch buffet; these days, it more resembles an international food court.

This year's festival is a cinematic orgy of more than 100 movies from more than 30 countries, presented at venues from Boca Raton to Coral Gables. (See "Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival" listings.) If you're a film company in search of product to distribute or a producer or director hoping to have your work picked up for distribution, a festival as movie marketplace or central clearinghouse is a seductive prospect indeed, a commercial crossroads where deals can be struck and careers launched.

But if you're simply a moviegoer looking for exciting, risk-taking films of the sort you're not likely to find at the neighborhood multiplex, your expectations of a festival are probably quite different. As such a moviegoer, I like the notion of a festival with a fairly well defined focus, a theme that applies rhyme and reason to the pictures it pulls together. Variety, yes, but also unity of vision.

Can a festival fulfill both functions, staking out a common ground for moviemakers and distributors while simultaneously providing quality fare for serious film enthusiasts? Obviously, yes. Many of the world's biggest and best-known festivals -- Cannes, New York, Toronto, Montreal, Venice, Berlin -- have done just that for years. And if the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival wants to play with the big kids, then maybe it's on the right track.

Me, I'm nostalgic for the days when the festival's devotion to English-language independents often turned up some defiantly quirky, original movies. I miss the groundbreaking documentaries, the critics'-choice screenings that unearthed overlooked cinematic gems.

I don't mean to imply that the festival has turned into some monstrous vulgar spectacle, although the proliferation of corporate sponsorships and festival-related parties and receptions could easily convey that impression. (And for some people, a festival as social event --a chance to rub elbows with visiting celebrities -- is a real draw, but that's another story.) I do worry, however, that in its attempts to be all things to all people, the festival risks becoming watered down or even irrelevant. Just sample the press releases to get a sense of the schizophrenia: The festival "salutes women in film." It "targets Hispanic audiences." It "gives back to the community with a benefit series." It teams up with the Hollywood Asian Film Festival and cosponsors a Hollywood Goes to the Opera retrospective. Does it slice and dice, too?

When a festival grows this big, the sheer logistics threaten to become overwhelming -- so many movies from which to choose, so little time. This year's schedule includes more than 230 screenings, not to mention the related seminars, parties, and other activities. During the daunting process of trying to screen a cross section of the festival's major selections, I discovered some welcome reminders of what a film festival is (or should be) all about. What follows is the first installment (look for part two in next week's issue) of a sampling of what this year's Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival has to offer.

Affliction
There's no chance of writer-director Paul Schrader's stark adaptation of the novel by Russell Banks being mistaken for the feel-good movie of this or any season. It's a caustic but ultimately heart-rending portrait of a basically decent man struggling to overcome, or even simply cope with, his baser instincts -- the "affliction" of the title.

As seen here, that ailment is a peculiarly male syndrome that prompts its sufferers to treat others -- women and children in particular, but also other men -- in violent and odiously demeaning ways. The problem is not a defect of character as such but a pattern of violence, a legacy of physical and emotional abuse that can be passed from generation to generation as surely as a family heirloom.

We see it first in the bewildering behavior of a small-town New Hampshire cop/ divorce/dad/snowplow driver, played by Nick Nolte, toward his unhappy young daughter. It's also there, just below the surface, in Nolte's interactions with his boss (Homes Osborne), his best friend (Jim True), his ex-wife (Mary Beth Hurt), and, eventually, his lover and confidante (Sissy Spacek).

But it's not until a series of grainy, home movie-style flashbacks to the man's childhood reveal the grim relationship he had with his bullying, berating father (James Coburn) that we realize the full implications of the affliction Nolte endures. His unfocused rage and will to dominate are a horrifying inheritance he doesn't even comprehend. (I kept thinking of a couple of quotes that sum up the predicament. Euripides: "The gods visit the sins of the fathers upon the children." And Lamentations: "The fathers have eaten a sour grape, and the children's teeth are set on edge.")

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