Bigger, Longer, and Uncut, Part 2

Nonsensical scheduling aside, this year's FLIFF offers some winning dramas and documentaries

Now that the Boca Mini Fest and the Asian Film Festival are out of the way, the main body of the 17th-annual Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival officially gets under way.

Never mind that "The Main Event," as the program refers to it, started on Wednesday, October 30, and opening night isn't until Friday, November 1, after dozens of movies have already screened. Over the years, it has apparently become a point of pride for the festival schedule to make virtually no sense.

Here's our second installment of festival reviews. Next week, I'll wrap up with a festival overview and a few final reviews.

Daughters of the Sun

For much of its 105-minute running time, this austere, beautifully understated Iranian drama uses neither dialogue nor music to shore up its stark visual beauty. It simply presents its characters and situations and lets the imagery carry the weight of the storytelling. The story being told is that of a young girl who is sent to a carpet mill in a remote village to earn money for her family. When we first see her, her hair is being shorn so that she can pass for a boy and thus be acceptable as an apprentice to the weaver, as heartless a tyrant as I've ever seen on film. The movie casts an unflinching eye on the multiple layers of tragedy that make up this girl's life, and it admirably refuses to sentimentalize her plight. (Saturday, November 2, 5:10 p.m., Las Olas Riverfront, Fort Lauderdale; Sunday, November 3, 1:30 p.m., Riverfront; 105 minutes; in Farsi with English subtitles)

Devil in the Holy Water

This no-frills documentary focuses on a fortuitous coincidence: the Roman Catholic Church's Jubilee celebration and the first World Gay Pride Day, both taking place in Rome. The Canadian filmmakers use person-on-the-street interviews and more formal sitdown interviews to highlight the contradictions that linger in a society in which the official religion still pervades everyday life even as people acknowledge its anachronisms. The cardinal who's the head of the Jubilee Committee tries to explain the event as an attempt to include everyone equally -- even as he refuses to address anything having to do with Pride Day. The rantings of a representative from an antigay organization are juxtaposed with an angry lesbian's diatribe against church policy. The filmmakers' sympathies are fairly obvious, and if there's any question, a quote from the pope hammers home their point: "It is not possible to create a real family out of the union of two men or two women. It is even less possible through such a union to attribute the right of adoption of children without family." It's enough to make you long for a debate between the pontiff and Rosie O'Donnell. (Saturday, November 2, 7:20 p.m., Riverfront; Monday, November 4, 9 p.m., Riverfront; Thursday, November 7, 9:10 p.m., Riverfront; 94 minutes; in Italian with English subtitles)

Food of Love

An amazingly faithful adaptation of the slim novel The Page Turner by David Leavitt, one of the most talented gay writers in contemporary fiction. Granted, the 1998 book is far from Leavitt at his best, but on-screen, the story's slightness works to its advantage. Some of the settings have been shuffled around (early key scenes take place in Barcelona instead of Rome), but writer-director Ventura Pons perfectly captures Leavitt's characters, and huge chunks of dialogue are taken directly from the book. Kevin Bishop is exceptional as a beautiful young man with a promising future as a concert pianist, and Juliet Stevenson is almost as good as the quintessential Leavitt mother -- loving, eccentric, sometimes willfully obtuse. Paul Rhys isn't nearly as effective as the older, internationally famous pianist who deflowers the young man, although Allan Corduner is good as the star's stay-at-home lover and manager. The movie hinges on the young man's coming of age (and coming out), however, and Bishop delivers a performance that captures an astonishing range of emotions. (Thursday, October 31, 9 p.m., Riverfront; Saturday, November 2, 9 p.m., Riverfront; Sunday, November 3, 7:40 p.m., Riverfront; 112 minutes)

Grégoire Moulin vs. Mankind

The festival's opening-night film, a French comedy, opens promisingly: A goat stands staked in a grassy patch, grazing, then looking up in reaction to a sound in the distance. The sound is that of an approaching train, and as it roars by, the startled goat goes flying through the air in terror. That sight gag gives way to a series of rapid-fire jokes, including a flashback to the infancy of the title character (born on a Friday the 13th) at the Franz Kafka Clinic. From there, the movie quickly deteriorates into a tedious embodiment of Murphy's Law, as the hapless Grégoire tries to romance a dance instructor he spies from his office. In the right hands, this material might have taken on the bemused whimsy of Jacques Tati's fish-out-of-water comedies; instead, it's as frantic and unfunny in its own way as the Martin Scorsese misfire After Hours, relying on cheap slapstick violence and increasingly strained humor. (Friday, November 1, 7 p.m., Parker Playhouse; 90 minutes; in French with English subtitles)

Innowhereland

This relentlessly bleak Turkish story is spiritual kin to such political dramas as the Argentinean The Official Story and the American Missing, focusing, as they did, on an individual grappling with governmental forces beyond her control. Here, it's a widowed woman whose son abruptly joins the ranks of what are euphemistically called "the lost people." (There are implications that her husband was killed for political reasons.) She's consumed by her sense of loss but also unable to let go, and so again and again, she tries to penetrate an impassive bureaucracy to find out the fate of her beloved. The movie wears you down, but it's also an extraordinary evocation of maternal grief. (Monday, November 4, 7:20 p.m., Riverfront; Saturday, November 9, 1 p.m., Riverfront; 105 minutes; in Turkish with English subtitles)

Merci pour le Chocolat (Nightcap)

The icy hauteur of Isabelle Huppert -- France's answer to Meryl Streep -- is perfect for this vaguely Hitchcockian thriller from veteran French director Claude Chabrol. Huppert and Chabrol have worked together on several other pictures, including an oddball 1991 adaptation of Madame Bovary, and he seems to know instinctively how to capitalize on her peculiar charms. Here she portrays a Swiss chocolate heiress who, after a hiatus of several years, remarries her ex-husband, a legendary pianist played by the laconic Jacques Dutronc. A major story strand involves the question of whether the pianist's son from another marriage and a family friend's daughter, who were born on the same day, were inadvertently switched at birth. The question is ultimately a red herring, but it sends the movie off on all sorts of tantalizing tangents. Chabrol's touch here is that of a confident master -- this is his 53rd film -- who works wonders with the subtlest of innuendoes. The English title, incidentally, alludes to the hot chocolate the Huppert character prepares nightly for her stepson; a more literal translation of the French title would be "Thanks for the Chocolate." (Sunday, November 3, 1:30 p.m., Riverfront; Tuesday, November 5, 1:20 p.m., Riverfront; 99 minutes; in French with English subtitles)

P.S. Your Cat Is Dead

Actor Steve Guttenberg is his own worst enemy in his adaptation of the beloved novel and play by James Kirkwood (A Chorus Line). In his directorial debut, Guttenberg acquits himself admirably, and he takes only modest liberties in his screen treatment of the material. His big mistake is in casting himself in the lead, as a struggling actor whose one-man show has just closed, whose girlfriend has just dumped him, and whose apartment has been burglarized twice (the sole manuscript of his novel was a casualty). Oh, yeah -- he finds out along the way that his hospitalized cat is a goner. Guttenberg's performance alternates between hangdog resignation and over-the-top anger, reconfirming critic David Denby's memorable dismissal of him as "Howdy Doody with muscles." The movie comes to life with the reappearance of the gay Hispanic burglar (Lombardo Boyar, in an irresistibly lewd performance), who's promptly tied to the kitchen counter and then engaged in an ongoing dialogue that's easily the best thing about the picture. (Saturday, November 2, 5:20 p.m.; Riverfront; Sunday, November 3, 3:30 p.m., Riverfront; 90 minutes)

Triggermen

The spirit of Quentin Tarantino circa Pulp Fiction hovers insistently over this thriller, which is competently made but far too derivative. Adrian Dunbar (the lead terrorist in The Crying Game) and Neil Morrissey (Men Behaving Badly)are two inept, small-time British crooks who find themselves in the middle of a scheme involving the hitmen of the title (Donnie Wahlberg and Michael Rapaport) and a big-time criminal (the ever-reliable Pete Postlethwaite). Think mistaken identity multiplied again and again and again. Despite appealing performances and occasional flashes of wit -- a character describes someone as looking "like an old gypsy woman, like Bob Dylan looks these days" -- the movie is pretty much hollow at the core. By the time Amanda Plummer, as Dunbar's lover, turns up in America, there's nothing left to salvage. (Saturday, November 2, 7:30 p.m., Riverfront; Sunday, November 3, 3:20 and 7:20 p.m., Riverfront; 96 minutes)

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