FLIFF: Kids in Foreign Lands

Editor's note: The three-county, monthlong Florida International Film Festival continues this week with an array of foreign films and an American potboiler.

Beat the Drum

Earnest and obvious in the manner of a made-for-TV movie, this first feature from South African director David Hickson at least means well. It's about a 9-year-old boy who journeys from his rural agricultural community into teeming Johannesburg after losing both parents to AIDS, which inspires such fear and awe that it's referred to as a curse and makes the boy an outcast among the other children. The boy's humble goals are to earn enough money to buy another cow for what remains of his family and to find his missing uncle, the father of a girl cousin who's his closest friend in the village (and, in an underdeveloped subplot, is the victim of sexual abuse at the hands of a teacher). "You are going to see many things in the city," he's told before his departure, and there's a nice throwaway visual gag as he nonchalantly passes rhinos and giraffes on his way out of the countryside -- exotica for us, perhaps, but the stuff of everyday life for him. Among the "types" he encounters along the way are a gruff but kindly truck driver he travels with for a time (and returns to later in the story), a no-nonsense businessman and his soft-hearted son, and a young girl who befriends him. The drum of the title is a gift bestowed on the boy by his dying father that becomes a sort of good-luck charm. The film fares better when it shows rather than tells us the dangers of the big city. Too often, however, it resorts to such heavy-handed dialogue as "Our children are our treasure" and "All this talk about condoms -- it's unnatural!" Worse, it invites comparisons to such similar and vastly superior stories as Mira Nair's Salaam Bombay!and Satyajit Ray's great "Apu" trilogy, Indian dramas that, unlike this one, offer no easy outs for their beleaguered characters. (Saturday, November 6, 7:10 p.m., Cinema Paradiso; Saturday, November 13, 3 p.m., AMC Coral Ridge 10; 114 minutes; in English and Zulu, with English subtitles) -- Michael Mills

An African farm rebuffs a Brit schemer.
An African farm rebuffs a Brit schemer.
Caterina takes on the big city.
Caterina takes on the big city.

Details

Through Saturday, November 20, at Cinema Paradiso, 503 SE Sixth St., Fort Lauderdale; AMC Coral Ridge, 3401 NE 26th Ave., Fort Lauderdale; and Regal Delray Beach, 1660 S. Federal Hwy., Delray Beach. Call 954-525-FILM, or visit www.fliff.com

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Caterina va in Città (Caterina Goes to the City)

This comedy from up-and-coming young Italian filmmaker Paolo Virz is meandering, talky, and often unfocused, although it's amiable enough to squeak by on the strength of its characters and a directorial touch that's mostly light. Virz is foremost among a new generation of proponents of commedia all'italiana ("comedy Italian-style"), and he's especially deft at folding social and political commentary into a frothy confection such as this. The title character, matter-of-factly played by Alice Teghil, is a fairly typical 13-year-old whose family relocates from a small town on the outskirts of Rome to live in the home of her late grandparents in the city. The story focuses on her efforts to fit in -- she's immediately dismissed as a hick by her peers -- and, in a clever twist, she manages to work her way into both of her new school's dominant cliques, ultimately to no avail. (There's a Mediterranean variant of Clueless-ness at work here.) She also catches the eye, so to speak, of the Australian boy next door, who's oddly appealing despite a voyeuristic streak. But scene after scene is stolen by Caterina's cranky father, a high-strung and overly class-conscious schoolteacher played to acerbic perfection by Sergio Castellito. He has a great bit at the movie's beginning in which he delivers a bitter, demoralizing farewell speech to a classroom full of inattentive, been-there, done-that students -- the scene is staged with such casual, disarming ease that it's almost over before you pick up on what the filmmaker is up to. (Friday, November 5, 7 p.m., Parker Playhouse; 116 minutes; in Italian, with English subtitles) -- Michael Mills

Slim Susie

This latest comedy from Sweden to lampoon small-town life there bills itself as a sort of Nordic Trainspotting, Pulp Fiction, or Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Yes, it's a cool and stylized "gangster" piece like Pulp Fiction and deals with drugs and quirky characters like Trainspotting, but it takes itself much less seriously than either of those films. And its drug use is more a loopy plot device, another quirk to add to a character.

The film follows young Erik, who returns to his hometown from the big city (Stockholm) in search of his sister, Slim Susie, who has suddenly gone missing. He meets up with his childhood buddy Morka, an unemployed, pill-popping video junkie, to get answers to Susie's disappearance. Everyone seems evasive (and eccentric), and Erik is easily distracted, but he manages to come across clues that he eventually fits together into the truth. The story unfolds with flashbacks, forwards, side jumps, and bizarre dream sequences that end in a wild and somewhat unexpected ending.

The closest relative to Slim Susie might be Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, with its winding, unpredictable plots and characters suddenly thrust over their heads into nefarious situations. But Slim Susie is less violent, quirkier, and funnier, with deadpan lines sprinkled in like "We got a tape of A Clockwork Orange backward; at one point, it sounds like he's speaking Swedish" as Morka talks about Kubrick night at his house. Or the guy who tries to kill himself with a staple gun but misses, stapling his cheek to the floor. It's hard to flesh out characters when the action is this jumpy and the story so convoluted, when they end up being no more than a composite of idiosyncrasies. But the actors manage to give their characters enough heart that you care what happens to them, just like people you remember from your own hometown. (Tuesday, November 9, 9:15 p.m., Cinema Paradiso; 101 minutes; Swedish, with English subtitles) -- John Anderson

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