Screen Tests II

The fifteenth Miami Film Festival continues apace Thursday through Sunday with two works by Japanese director-actor Takeshi Kitano, a star-studded entry from venerable new-wave filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni, and the most recent movie made by playwright David Mamet. Not forgetting a closing-night screening of Italy's Il Ciclone, which has become that nation's biggest box-office bonanza ever. (Keep in mind, however, that the Italians made 1989's dippy Weekend at Bernie's a huge hit.) All foreign-language films will be shown with English subtitles. Screenings take place at the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts, 174 E. Flagler St., Miami. Call 305-372-0925 for ticket information.

It would great to report that 1995's Beyond the Clouds, the most recent film from iconic Italian '60s New-Wave director Michelangelo Antonioni (1960's L'Avventura, 1966's Blow-Up), is a remarkable achievement, but in fact the story behind its making is ultimately more interesting than the movie itself. In failing health and recovering from a stroke, the director, age 84 at the time, wasn't able to complete the project. It was picked up and finished by German director Wim Wenders (1984's Paris, Texas, 1987's Wings of Desire), who created a framework for its four vignettes, which are based on a quartet of stories from Antonioni's book Quel Bowling sul Tevere (That Bowling Alley on the Tiber). Wenders brought in John Malkovich as a narrator and created exquisite cameos for film greats Jeanne Moreau and Marcello Mastroianni. The result is more a cinematic curiosity than an engaging piece of art.

It's easy to see that Antonioni feels close to these particular tales. They're intimate and personal, if not particularly meaty. And each story takes on the filmmaker's now-familiar theme of the impossibility of connection, especially between lovers. There's no obvious link between the stories themselves, apart from the narrator, who actually becomes a character in the second piece, "The Girl, The Crime," an unsettling morsel about a guy who follows a woman to work and nearly seduces her. When he meets up with her later, she tells him an astonishing fact about her past. What comes of it? Not much. Like the other tales, it seems more like an idea for a story than a story itself.

In the first vignette, "Chronicle of a Love Affair That Never Existed," the narrator introduces us to a man and a woman who pursue each other until one realizes that nothing can happen because desire is stronger than love. The fourth story, "This Body of Dir," also about a couple who can't quite connect, is well made but slight. Only the third piece, "Don't Look for Me," has staying power. It concerns a love triangle -- a woman, her husband, and his lover -- that struggles along till one party can't stand it any more. That person lands in a situation that embraces a deep, complex heartbreak. With its double-edged turn of events and odd sweetness, "Don't Look for Me" seems more like a film by Antonioni's New-Wave cohort Eric Rohmer.

Anyone who remembers Antonioni from his mid-'60s heyday -- 1964's The Red Desert and the aforementioned Blow-Up -- may well miss the director who made eye-popping tableaux out of banal objects such as apartment buildings. That's not what Antonioni is up to here; he leaves the moody effects to Wenders. Instead Antonioni makes good use of an ensemble cast that includes Fanny Ardant, Irene Jacob, Vincent Perez, and Ines Sastre. There are several dollops of gratuitous female nudity -- the sort that originally gave makers of "foreign films" a reputation for being dirty old men -- and they serve only to make Antonioni seem out-of-date.

Unfortunately for newcomers, the signature Antonioni element that stands out in Beyond the Clouds is its stilted existential dialogue. "I like your eyes because they're empty of everything but sweetness," says one lover to another. "I'm enslaved by your silence," this same character notes later. To anyone under the age of 30, this will sound like a Calvin Klein ad, because -- in truth -- the famous campaign for Klein's Obsession perfume parodied Antonioni.

For those who associate the director with an era when the concepts of disconnection and alienation were still rude and fresh, let me give you a nudge toward For Me, to Make a Movie Is to Live, a 1995 documentary made by Antonioni's wife Enrica. It records the unsinkable spirit of a man, half-paralyzed and unable to speak, giving direction to his actors with hand gestures. It's a better example than the film at hand of why he will be remembered when, alas, he too is beyond the clouds. (Thursday, February 5, 7 p.m.)

-- Robin Dougherty

In the agreeable but very slight comedy-drama Carreteras Secundarias (Back Roads), a widower and his fourteen-year-old son wander the Spanish coastline, abandoning one apartment after another in an effort to stay a step ahead of the father's latest misbegotten business venture.  

At the beginning of the story, the two relate to each other much like typical teens and parents everywhere, which is to say only marginally. By the end of their vaguely picaresque adventures, they have weathered various hardships and crises (including a jail stint for the dad), and they achieve a mutual respect.

Part coming-of-age story, part road movie, Carreteras Secundarias isn't as corny as it may sound, although the poetic justice of its ending is a bit too tidy. Emilio Martinez-Lazaro directs with a refreshing matter-of-factness, and until that questionable ending, he avoids easy sentiment.

He also juxtaposes two contrasting styles of performance, which results in some hilarious moments. There's straightforward, natural work from the two male leads: Fernando Ramallo as the teenager Felipe, who's moody and mildly rebellious (he covers himself with stick-on tattoos and misbehaves at school), and Antonio Resines as the father Locano, a dignified, decent, and unlucky man with a weakness for wild women and gambling.

The female characters -- especially Locano's two girlfriends -- are a whole different story. Early on we meet the aspiring singer Estrella (Miriam Diaz Aroca), an impossibly perky blonde who dresses in the most garish of '70s fashions (the film is set in 1974) and irritates poor Felipe by calling him "big man." After she and Locano part ways, along comes Paquita (Maribel Verdi), a leggy younger woman with long, luscious dark hair and a raging libido.

At first it seems as if Martinez-Lazaro is making fun of these two lively women. But eventually it becomes clear that he's treating them with an odd mix of affection and fascination, as if they're exotic birds he's drawn to but doesn't quite understand (neither do Locano and Felipe). Whenever the women are on screen, the movie gets a jolt of high-voltage energy worthy of one of Pedro Almodovar's early comedies. (Thursday, February 5, 9:30 p.m.)

-- Michael Mills

"I haven't been to the pictures in quite some time," a befuddled Giles De'Ath (John Hurt) explains to a London multiplex box-office clerk early on in English writer-director Richard Kwietniowski's dull and treacly Love & Death on Long Island. You see, on a whim, widower Giles, a prolific and reclusive Important Writer in his sixties -- we never learn the nature of his work (details, who needs them?) -- decides to attend the cinema, with the intention of seeing a screen adaptation of an E.M. Forster novel. But by accident -- oh, he's easily confused, having been, by his own admission, "out of public life" for a while -- he winds up at Hotpants College II, a teenploitation Animal House knockoff. Realizing his mistake, Giles rises to leave, but at that moment hunk-o-rama actor Ronnie Bostock (Jason Priestley) appears on screen, and Giles goes all woozy.

Thus begins Giles' obsession with Ronnie, which completely and utterly upends his hermetic existence. First he returns for a repeat viewing of Hotpants College II. Then he ventures to a department store to buy a VCR so that he can rent Ronnie's other movies, but once there he stands staring mutely at a wall of microwaves. He doesn't know what a VCR looks like! A hoot, non? OK, worthy of at least a wry grin? And Kwietniowski does not stop there, leading us through a litany of George Bush-perplexed-by-the-supermarket-scanner-type scenes involving Giles and a TV set, Giles at the video shop, Giles and a cordless phone, Giles and a car's robotic warning-system voice. Kwietniowski evidently considers these bits humorous, but they're just exasperating.

Giles' obsession with Ronnie extends to shoplifting Tiger Beat-esque magazines so he can ogle pictures of the young actor. Giles clips everything Ronnie-related and pastes it into a ledgerlike book on which he has written "Bostockia" in florid script; he rents and repeatedly views Ronnie's handful of grade-Z films, including one entitled Tex-Mex. (Incidentally, the filmmaker captures the innately dopey nature of each exploitation genre he parodies here, and Priestley has a ball acting in these films within the film.)

Giles, intellectualizing/rationalizing his newfound goo-goo-ness, notes that he has "discovered beauty where no one ever thought of looking for it." (Well, many teenage girls already thought to look there.) Anyway, it reaches the point where he can't contain his ardor for Ronnie any longer, and he decides, doggone it, to cast caution to the wind and seek Ronnie out in the Long Island town where he lives -- Giles, you see, now knows everything about his dream boat. Once there he meets and manipulates Ronnie's model-girlfriend Audrey (Fiona Loewi), eventually using her to get to Ronnie, whom he dotes on and deceives and flatters and on and on, ultimately leading up to.... Ah, but that would be telling. At one point Giles looks in the mirror and says, "Dear God, this is ridiculous." Yes, it is, and so is Love & Death on Long Island. ("Death" = De'Ath, you'll note -- just too clever.)  

Why, you might ask yourself as you watch this agonizingly insipid film, would an old codger such as Giles, with nary a smidgen of homosexuality in his background (at least none about which we're told) and with a documented history as a bookish shut-in, suddenly go gaga for a teen pinup -- actively, relentlessly, and shamelessly pursuing that not-so-obscure object of his desire halfway across the globe? Let's turn to the film's press notes, wherein Kwietniowski provides an answer. "Love & Death on Long Island is about the power of cinema to tap into our unconscious, in this case with unstoppable consequences. It's the story of a head-on collision of two cultures."

Uh-huh. That explanation might wash if Giles had stumbled into Last Year at Marienbad instead of Hotpants College II. Kwietniowski strives for poignance and snags mawkishness instead. The "power" of his particular piece of "cinema" lies in its ability to drive you out of a theater faster than anything since the word fire. (Friday, February 6, 7 p.m.)

-- Michael Yockel

For lack of an exact parallel, you could say that director, editor, TV actor, and frequent talk-show guest Takeshi Kitano is Japan's answer to Keenen Ivory Wayans. (A better comparison might be to playwright Samuel Beckett, if Beckett had ever written for prime-time TV.) Kitano's captivating 1993 black-comedy gangster film, Sonatine -- distributed in the United States by Quentin Tarantino's Rolling Thunder division of Miramax Films -- is one of two movies by this emerging international cult figure to screen at this year's festival. (His 1997 film Fireworks unspools on Sunday.) It's one of the fest's most compelling entries.

Kitano (who goes by "Beat" Takeshi) stars as Murakama, a burned-out, middle-aged mobster who wants to retire but, because he's a threat to his overboss, he gets saddled with an unenviable assignment: He's sent to Okinawa to settle a clan war. Before he leaves Tokyo, we see him savagely beat another gangster, and we get our first clue that the movie isn't squeamish about spilling blood. That's what you'd expect from a story about Japan's notorious yakuza (mobsters). What's unusual, however, is that the story centers on the few weeks that Murakama and his underlings hole up on an Okinawa beach, waiting for an opportunity to act. It's a gangster film that's about the gangsters' downtime, but that's just the first element of Sonatine to fly in the face of our expectations.

Unlike the constant pyrotechnics of, say, a John Woo gangster film, Sonatine unfolds more like a Chekhov play -- a controlled drama in which suspense is built because nothing happens for long periods of time. It's about stakeouts as a way of life, and though Kitano plays this notion for comedy, the film's undercoat is actually very dark. Not that we aren't warned. Early on we witness Murakama's precise, businesslike brutality as he supervises the torture of a man lowered into the water by a crane. "It doesn't matter," he remarks when the man accidentally dies. But even that display of cold-bloodedness doesn't dissuade us from enjoying Murakama's lighter side.

He's bemused by the young thugs he's assembled: They can barely contain themselves, losing self-control and shooting at each other like irascible puppies moments after they've been hired. It's no wonder their world-weary boss plays jokes on them, egging them on till they fall into hidden traps he's set in the sand. And Murakama is particularly tickled when his men create a life-size reproduction of a kids' game in which paper dolls are made to "wrestle" each other. He even introduces a fatal twist into a seemingly innocent game of "paper, scissors, rock."

Despite the film's gentle running jokes (about Hawaiian shirts and geisha theater), despite the gangsters' cavorting on the beach, despite all the playfulness, Murakama knows that life isn't a game. He has nightmares; he wonders if he could kill himself. He talks with his girlfriend about whether he has the courage to die. A contemplative gangster? Kitano has a precedent, of course, in director Akira Kurosawa's warrior-heroes who transcend the limits of their Sam Peckinpah-imitating gunplay.

Indeed, despite Hollywood's time-honored compulsion to tally up excessive body counts, violence isn't necessarily best depicted through action. Kitano is showing us something about the rewards of patience in watching a film. (And perhaps something about filmmaking itself, an endeavor comprising long stretches of time when little occurs, punctuated by occasional action and insight.) Juxtaposed with lengthy comic interludes, the violence in Sonatine is rendered all the more horrific. The film's jagged revelations are made exquisitely shocking by the wait. (Saturday, February 7, 2 p.m.)  

-- Robin Dougherty

At the outset of Argentine director Eduardo Milewicz's likable if uneven La Vida Segun Muriel (Life According to Muriel), eight-year-old Muriel (Florencia Camiletti) and her brittle thirtysomething mother Laura (Soledad Villamil) hop into a car and speed away from Buenos Aires, lighting out for the mountainous countryside in the south where Laura grew up. In voice-over Muriel notes that a succession of her mom's boyfriends have described Laura as being "mentally unbalanced." She also points out that she has never met her father. End of back-story.

A plot convenience quickly intervenes, setting up the rest of the film: Laura and Muriel stop and get out of the car to admire a remarkably beautiful lakeside vista, one with snowcapped mountains looming in the background. The previously uptight Laura seems at peace as she sets a camera atop her car to snap a photo of herself and Muriel. Rut-roh. The car starts rolling away, plummets over a short but steep cliff, crashes, and tumbles into the lake, taking with it all of the pair's belongings, including a jar full of cash.

Penniless, out in the middle of East Nowheresville, they seek shelter at a large, outwardly ramshackle house inhabited by Mirta (Ines Estevez), also a single thirtysomething mother, and her two kids: Jimena (Carolina Valverde), who is slightly older than Muriel; and Manuel (Gonzalo Salama), slightly younger. Openly suspicious of strangers, Mirta at first turns Laura and Muriel away, then relents and allows them to stay. After an uneasy get-acquainted period in which the two women swirl around each other without really connecting -- artfully depicted by Milewicz -- they finally have a heart-to-heart one rainy evening, each confessing how she has been abandoned and, in short, screwed over by men, most notably by the father of her children. To the eternal credit of Milewicz and his coscreenwriter Susana Silvestre, their two principals conduct this tell-all session with neither rancor nor cynicism, but instead with sighs and shrugs, admitting that, yeah, men can be creeps, while stopping short of eviscerating one-half of the species.

It quickly becomes clear, however, that while Laura seems to have put her past behind her, Mirta pines for her husband Pablo, who took off for Buenos Aires when most of his and Mirta's house -- which he'd built as a hotel -- burned mere days before it was scheduled to open. He never returned. Having bonded, Laura and Mirta agree to restore the hotel, and set about doing so with the assistance of local sweetie-pie Tony (Federico Olivera), who harbors a huge crush on Mirta. Here's where the narrative and the filmmaking begin to falter.

Through yet another plot convenience, Muriel comes into possession of a video camera, left behind by a pair of beautiful, just-passing-through twentysomethings. Muriel seizes the camera, and, in mottled, rapid-cut, shaky-cam scenes set to rustic guitar and harmonica music, Milewicz shows us the restoration of This Old Hotel, with the sun shining brightly -- up until this point it has rained constantly -- on the completed project. Kind of hokey. Worse, with this bit the director forsakes deliberate, ungussied storytelling for technical gimmickry and music-enhanced posturing. So, with the hotel open for business (a pair of oldsters materializes); with Mirta having emerged from her dark cloud of distrust; with Laura smiling, obviously not even remotely "mentally unbalanced"; with everything looking hunky-dory (the sun shines!) -- you knew this was coming -- one of the wayward men returns, throwing Laura and Mirta and the kids' balanced, bucolic, womancentric world into a tizzy.

Always thoughtful, frequently incisive, La Vida Segun Muriel nonetheless stumbles sometimes, although it never actually splays on the ground. Not only do the tepid soundtrack music, both instrumental and vocal, and video-cam silliness detract from the proceedings, but from the moment the Man turns up, too often Milewicz resorts to indicating rather than showing. Additionally, and not insignificantly, he and Silvestre ignore the character of Mirta for too long a stretch, then yank her back in for a momentous denouement, which comes across as strained rather than cathartic. Still, the filmmakers have fashioned a work that respects both its characters and its audience. A quiet testament to inner fortitude, La Vida Segun Muriel accomplishes its modest but worthy goal of realistically portraying women struggling with major life-choices -- and it does so without bold-faced pronouncements and outright man-bashing. (Saturday, February 7, 4:30 p.m.)

-- Michael Yockel

About halfway through David Mamet's entertaining intrigue The Spanish Prisoner, we learn that the film's title refers to an elaborate and very old confidence game. Campbell Scott plays Joe Ross, an inventor or perhaps an engineer -- it's never really spelled out -- whose top-secret "process" has his corporate bosses wagging their tails in anticipation of huge profits. They fly him from his New York City office to a Caribbean resort to meet stockholders. He meets them, all right, along with a set of oddballs whose interest in Joe ranges from the bizarre to the unhealthy.  

All that occurs in the first ten minutes. By the time Joe has to return to New York, he's made friends with Jimmy Dell (Steve Martin), a jet setter who asks Joe to deliver a package to his sister there. Joe is also basking in the attentions of his new secretary, Susan Ricci (played by Mamet's real-life wife Rebecca Pidgeon). Meanwhile, despite vague promises from his bosses, Joe can't determine what his share of the financial windfall from the implementation of his process is going to be. His higher-ups refuse to commit anything to paper. When the mysterious Jimmy shows up in New York, Joe seems headed into a major con.

Written and directed by Mamet and produced by long-time Woody Allen associate Jean Doumanian, The Spanish Prisoner is such a well-executed and well-acted movie that you might not care that, once it gets rolling, you can easily see the con coming. (Never mind. Subtle surprises appear even as the director seems to be tying up loose ends.) Joe exists, of course, in the Mamet universe, the same existential hellhole that pervades the playwright's Glengarry Glen Ross, Oleanna, and Speed-the-Plow. (The first two have been adapted for the screen.) As occurs in those plays -- as well as in Mamet's screenplays for 1987's House of Games and the current Wag the Dog -- the characters here maneuver around each other uttering staccato dialogue, a creepy code that actually has more to do with posturing than speech. When Joe, complaining to his boss (Ben Gazzara), comments that "the question is one of compensation," the sentence implies every sinister possibility that can arise as a result of Joe's apparent passivity.

It's no surprise then that Joe can't trust anyone. His first real conversation with Susan is about whether new buddy Jimmy is who he says he is. (She thinks not.) Even the lobby of Joe's office sports a World War II propaganda poster sternly pointing out that "Someone talked." So why is Joe so trusting of Jimmy? Their friendship nearly dissolves before it's solidified, but when Jimmy calls to apologize after they have a misunderstanding, the two bond. With Jimmy on his side, Joe asserts himself, pressing for adequate compensation; then, before he knows it, he's on the run.

Standard film-noir-via-Mamet stuff for the most part. But here's the thing. In most Mamet plays and screenplays there are only two types of characters: the one who's getting screwed and the one who is doing the screwing. What makes The Spanish Prisoner interesting is that you're not quite sure of anyone's agenda, including Susan's. While women in Mamet works tend to be outsiders, Susan seems to have dropped in from outer space. Far too eggheaded to come off as a career secretary, she makes our antennae go up from the moment she appears on screen.

"I'm just here to serve," she tells Joe in a tone that implies anything but. Or take this exchange: To Joe's remark that it's "a funny old world," she says, "Dog my cats," as though that were the most natural reply on Earth. Pidgeon pulls off these sleight-of-hand moments with a muscular grace. As good as she is, though, the actress is just one part of a crackerjack cast that includes veteran Gazzara, Ricky Jay, and Felicity Huffman. (An actress who bears a striking resemblance to Mamet's first wife, Lindsay Crouse, is cast as the bitchy mother of a cranky child in one crucial scene.) But the performances we'll remember most are those of Martin, cast marvelously against type, and Scott, whose character is a deeply likable "Joe."

If anyone disappoints here, it's Mamet, who really isn't stretching. On the other hand, given the creaky workmanship of what comes out of Hollywood these days, garden-variety Mamet is worth lining up for. Dog my cats, indeed. (Saturday, February 7, 7 p.m.)

-- Robin Dougherty

Spanish director-writer Montxo Armendariz's Secretos del Corazon (Secrets of the Heart) traverses some of the same emotional territory explored by English director Mike Leigh's 1996 Secrets & Lies, adroitly prying and poking at the things family members keep from (and reveal to) each other, and their reasons: fear or shame or ignorance. But where Leigh unspooled his revelations from the point of view of several different characters, Armendariz concentrates solely on nine-year-old Javi (Andoni Erburu), who never leaves the screen during the film's 108 minutes. An endearing, bucktoothed cinematic cipher, he serves as the audience's guide, and as he discovers his family's secrets, so do we.  

Armendariz frames his film (a Spanish-French-Portuguese production) with an engaging, if occasionally too cute opening/ closing device: a school play. Set in the early '60s, the movie begins with chaotic rehearsals for the play, with Javi and his slightly older brother Juan (Alvaro Nagore) sharing the leads in their Catholic boys school's musical parable about a little boy named Chickpea (Javi) who cuts classes and ventures into the woods (the great unknown), where he comes into contact with singing shepherds, flowers, and whatnot, as well as a beneficent wizard (Juan). In real life the brothers trundle between the city of Pamplona, in northern Spain, where they attend school and live with their two unmarried aunts -- serious, prim dressmaker Rosa (Vicky Pena) and earthy, tippling homemaker Maria (Charo Lopez) -- and a not-too-distant village where, during school vacations, they visit their kind, sad-smiled widowed mother (Silvia Munt), who lives with her congenial brother-in-law (Carmelo Gomez) and stolid father-in-law (Joan Valles).

After the school-play intro, Armendariz spends the remainder of his film steering Javi on his own journey through emotional and societal unknowns. The boy witnesses or peripherally experiences most of life's great imponderables. Sex: first between two dogs, later between Maria and an old lover. Murder: a spider, a fly, and Javi as a willful accomplice. Religion: a terrific scene depicting a Mass in the country town. Domestic violence: the parents of his best friend Carlos (Inigo Garces). Suicide: Carlos' mom and, later, someone much closer to Javi.

Wisely, Armendariz presents these encounters with a considered pacing, never overwhelming us, and he almost always depicts them with candor and a distinct lack of fussiness. (The scene in which Javi and Carlos hand over their allowance money to an urchin girl who has promised in return to give them a peek at her underwear rings false, though.) To enhance the "secrets" motif, the filmmaker creates several mysterious forbidden zones: an abandoned house near the boys' school, where, according to Juan, a double murder occurred; the scary cellar at Mom's house, where Javi must go to fetch a bottle of wine in the middle of dinner; and, most important, also at his mother's, the room she tells her sons they must not enter. Shown from Javi's perspective, they're all convincingly mystical or spooky.

Most movies that feature a kid protagonist, this one included, are really about the adults around him or her; the child's activities remain contingent upon what happens to the grownups -- how their lives affect his. (For a noteworthy departure, seek out 1996's Ponette, a French film that completely gives itself over to the world of children.) That fact doesn't vex Secretos del Corazón, owing to the cast's uniformly fine performances (notably young Erburu, Valles, Munt, and Lopez) and Armendariz's determination not to sentimentalize the proceedings -- well, at least not too much. The film certainly has its saccharine moments, but it doesn't stray into the maudlin, and despite the fact that the director wraps up everything neatly, the resolutions -- Javi coming to terms with the truths behind the "secrets" -- feel justified, not contrived. (Sunday, February 8, 2 p.m.)

-- Michael Yockel

Leonardo Pieraccioni's 1996 debut Il Ciclone (The Cyclone) has reportedly hit native Italian audiences like, well, a cyclone. In fact it is that nation's all-time highest-grossing film. But because comedy rarely travels well across cultural lines, it's unlikely to have the same impact here.

Not that it isn't charming. Set in and around the sunflower-strewn fields of Tuscany, the story concerns Levante (played by director Pieraccioni), the young accountant who narrates the film, which is told in flashback. Though he doesn't exactly say so, Levante cares more about balancing his books than he does about the advances of one of his female clients. We learn that he lives in a rustic country mansion with his geezer of a father, his goofball artist brother, and his sister, a lesbian who has just broken up with the village pharmacist. Brother Libero (Massimo Ceccherini), an idiot when it comes to farm work, occupies himself by painting different variations on the same scene, each of which bears the same motto: "Dio ce?" (Does God exist?) He also sleeps in a coffin. More interesting, given the close-mindedness we often associate with small-town living, is the brothers' matter-of-fact acceptance of sister Selvaggia's (Barbara Enrichi) sexual orientation. A common group activity involves manipulating homemade antennae fashioned from pots and pans in an effort to re-establish radio and TV reception at the farmhouse.

Particularly engaging is the film's depiction of the routine of rural life. Nothing ever changes. Here, everyone knows everything about everyone else, including their sexual exploits. The place is ripe for upset, which comes in the form of a touring troupe of drop-dead gorgeous flamenco dancers (the "cyclone" of the title). When the dancers arrive -- they've actually taken a wrong turn on the way to their hotel -- Levante and his family invite the troupe to camp out. The visitors interrupt the dull flow of ordinary life and give it new meaning. For Levante it means realizing he's fallen in love. The familiarity of his commute to work on his trusty moped is no longer enough to ground him. The film's underlying joke is that Levante narrates the account of how he falls for one of the dancers as though it were a story about his motorbike.  

Levante is not alone in sensing change. Everyone in the town finds that his or her equilibrium has been perturbed. At the farmhouse even the radio reception is restored. These transformations are not insignificant, of course. Indeed, what Il Ciclone does best is portray the way a powerful catalyst can dramatically and immediately change even the most ingrained of circumstances. With its affable cast and affectionate storytelling, Il Ciclone may not be the funniest comedy you've ever seen, but it's surely one of the gentlest. (Sunday, February 8, 7 p.m.)

-- Robin Dougherty

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