Kids and Scoundrels

That other, smaller, more manageable film festival

The Palm Beach International Film Festival is a far more manageable affair than its neighbor in Fort Lauderdale. Lauderdale's big festival runs more than a month, dragging in a gazillion theaters and any good, decent, or even just quirky movie it can lay hands on. PFIFF runs just eight days. And though it will open with the new Woody Harrelson poker comedy The Grand — just like FLIFF did five months ago — it then turns into its own thing, with flicks you'll most likely never get a chance to see again from a healthy cross-section of countries. Many are worth your time. Some are so bad you'll want to rip your eyes out before the opening credits are half done. Read on.

La Americana It's easy to see why Nicholas Bruckman chose Maria del Carmen Rojas as his primary subject in this documentary. It's that face — open, stolid, heroic even, though stung by the bitterness of a cruel dilemma. Carmen has the kind of face a sculptor might exult in. An undocumented immigrant from Bolivia, Carmen is a New York cleaning lady/babysitter/dog-groomer who has left her wheelchair-bound daughter back in Cochabamba so she can make enough money in America for medical treatments. In other words, she's just one of the 11 million whose immigration status has fired debate. The one thing that the debate usually sidesteps — besides the by-the-numbers newspaper features about Teresita and Jose in Gringolandia — is the humanity of those "illegals." In a straight-ahead documentary style, with only a few bars of Bolivian quena music here and there and no dramatic reenactments, Bruckman captures their humanity by the gallon in one of the saddest movies I've ever seen. There's the vast, stinging distance between mother and bottomlessly needy daughter, a distance incapable of being overcome thanks to zero tolerance from the immigration system — until, after six years of separation, Carmen decides she's had enough. There are the bitter realities back home in Cochabamba: Carmen's stash of saved twenty-dollar bills doesn't go far to help little Carla (struck down at age 8 by a bus). Carmen must carry her now 15-year-old daughter up and down the stairs of medical buildings where the doctors conclude, sorry, they can't help the girl.

Reunited at last, Carmen and Carla seek medical help in Cochabamba.
Reunited at last, Carmen and Carla seek medical help in Cochabamba.

While we're checking out Carmen, she's checking out us, asking politely about this "American dream" thing everybody talks about. In her final days in America, somebody takes Carmen to the Statue of Liberty, where she reads the famous lines: "give me your tired, your poor."

"Words that are as empty as the statue," Carmen says dispassionately. Let's take Tom Tancredo and Joyce Kaufman to the theater, strap them into seats, and force them to watch. (Friday, April 11, 3 p.m., Sunrise Cinemas at Mizner Park) Edmund Newton

The Little Traitor is the rare political work that keeps its politics out of sight, where they belong. It's also the rare movie that seems to actually grok what it's like in a kid's head. By keeping the cameras with Proffy — played with cunning sweetness by Israeli Ido Port — the film creates and maintains the contours of a child's archetypal summer. The days passing in Little Traitor could go in any direction, and the commingled joy and dread in each is vivid, tactile, and totally inexplicable. The dread is surreal, like something out of Grimm, but that's just a question of perspective. Little Traitor takes place in British-occupied Palestine circa 1947, and the adults in the movie's background face a dread far more concrete than Proffy's. Though Israel is on the verge of statehood, there are still strict curfews in place, and British soldiers are likely to interrupt your dinner with a sudden house search. Sensing the zeitgeist, Proffy and his friends meet in secret and plan to blow up Englishmen. These are cute kids, and it feels weird hearing them scream, "Kill the British!" Rushing home one day after curfew, Proffy is apprehended by a gruff, mean-looking English soldier, Sergeant Dunlop. Threatening Proffy with arrest and whipping, and generally trying to scare him straight, Dunlop escorts him home and drops him off with his parents. Impressed by the kid's precocity, Dunlop tells Proffy to pay him a visit sometime, and the two become friends, talking about the Book of Daniel, snookah, language, and girls. This all goes swimmingly until Proffy's friends find out. The grown-up Zionist hardliners in Proffy's neighborhood can't imagine anything so innocent as mere friendship springing up with a British imperialist; Proffy is informally labeled a traitor and his life becomes miserable. This business of putative enemies becoming buds would be insufferably cute if director Lynn Roth had tried to over-moralize the thing, but she doesn't. Proffy's just a kid, and Dunlop's just a guy — a preternaturally kind one, played with expansive good will by Alfred Molina. He's lonely, maybe a little too intellectual for the military life, and Proffy's a little too sensitive to be a good militant. If The Little Traitor is cute, it's not affectedly so — it gets there on the basis of a good, honest heart. (Wednesday, April 16, 12 noon, Sunrise Cinemas at Mizner Park) Brandon K. Thorp

Fugitive Pieces was originally a novel by Canadian author Anne Michaels. While Amos Oz, whose own novel inspired The Little Traitor, draws his politics from real life and everyday experience, Michaels comes from poetry. Fugitive Pieces feels far more literary — its subject seems to be the way words can carry history when the raw muscles of memory fail. Like The Little Traitor, this is a good-hearted film about childhood, but it's harder to take. The child of Fugitive Pieces, Jakob Beer, has to navigate much darker terrain than Proffy, and he's not necessarily better for it in the end. The film captures Jakob as both child and adult in alternating scenes. As a child in Poland, he watches his father killed and his family taken by Nazis while he hides under a piano. Later, he lives with another displaced victim of the Nazis, the geologist Athos Roussos, on the Grecian coast. As an adult, he's a lonely, lachrymose man who's lived his whole life in the same Canadian apartment building to which he and Athos fled after leaving Europe. Having never found his family, he writes them into existence along with any unsung victim of Nazism whose name passes his way, capturing or imagining the details of their lives in a book he slowly authors and ultimately will publish. Sometimes Fugitive Pieces seems to stand still, to hold its breath and linger over a line forever, as though the careful unspooling of every slow, twisting Anne Michaels sentence were cause for meditation. "I can tell you what her wrists look like," Jakob says of his true love, "how the hair grows at the back of her neck — but most of all, I know her memories." The contemplativeness that pervades Fugitive Pieces reads like an extension of Beer's desire to get it right, to hold all the fragments of his broken childhood in his mind and see them clearly. The structure he creates is as delicate as Michaels' sentences, as delicate as the archeological dig Athos worked on just before the Nazis arrived. When he's forced into a social situation with young Canadians, their fast and vital conversations seem vulgar. Framed by the deathly still scenes of Beer's solitary life, the assault of their chatter is like waking up to a fluorescent lamp. After spending a couple of hours in the museum of Beer's mind, real life can seem that way too. (Saturday, April 12, 7:30 p.m., Sunrise Cinemas at Mizner Park) Thorp

Apology of an Economic Hit Man There are too many things wrong here to thoroughly address, so we'll just hit the highlights, in hopes of shaming John Perkins into never again fooling around with celluloid. In theory, Hit Man is the result of Perkins' decision to break his "vow of silence" with regard to a decade of shadowy operations around the world as an "economic hit man" in the employ of Chas T. Main. In practice, Hit Man lacks any such focus. Is this an attempt at cogent political argument? An attempt to lionize Mr. Perkins? A polemic against Paul Wolfowitz and the World Bank? Is it about the real reason the U.S. went to war with Iraq? Or is it a collection of random clips of individual Americans doing embarrassing things in other countries? At various times, Hit Man appears to be all of these. Beginning with an atrociously filmed dramatization of the way economic hit men first set sights on a target — a fast-rolling cheese wheel of a scene featuring vaguely menacing men in suits watching a propaganda film in a smoke-filled room — the movie then proceeds to jabber out a half-baked thesis, reiterated again and again: Emissaries from U.S. companies routinely offer riches beyond imagining to leaders of developing nations, in return for their willful ignorance of the way those companies plunder the nations' resources. No shit, John. Politicians take bribes? For a man claiming long-lasting, intimate involvement in such clandestine operations, Perkins' refusal to name names, cite dates, or describe scenes is suspicious. So is his claim to insider knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the fatal helicopter crash of Ecuadorian President Jaime Roldós Aguilera — especially since Roldós didn't die in a helicopter crash (it was an airplane). As the movie rolls on, it offers no facts, no figures, not even any circumstantial evidence beyond the tiresome, commonsense thesis. Perkins masks this deficit with poorly shot dramatizations of events that even he never claims took place (sinister young American man offers cigar to nameless South American leader; leader accepts cigar, looking troubled; sinister American smiles). While talking about the secret motivations behind the war in Iraq (the pipeline, natch), Hit Man runs footage of a bunch of American soldiers taunting an Iraqi boy with a water bottle. How this relates to the war's economic impetus, I have no idea. FYI: when John Perkins isn't explaining the military-industrial complex to the unenlightened masses, he is a shaman. In addition to the critically skewered book that spawned this mess of a movie, Perkins has authored Shapeshifting and Psychonavigation. The first is a guide to South American shamanic techniques. The second teaches you how to time travel. Have fun. (Sunday, April 13, 12:30 p.m., Sunrise Cinemas at Mizner Park) Thorp

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