You will give yourself a migraine if you attempt to divine a theme running through the 26 films that make up the fifteenth Miami Film Festival. Don't bother trying. A readily apparent theme does not exist -- not that one needs to. International in everything but name, this year's renewal of the festival, as has been the custom in the past, leans heavily on recent Spanish-language releases (ten), while also corralling works from the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, Norway, Austria, France, Italy, and Russia. (All foreign-language films will be screened with English subtitles.)

The lineup includes four Academy Award nominees for Best Foreign Language Film: The Thief (Russia), The Best Man (Italy), Junk Mail (Norway), and Secrets of the Heart (Spain). Additionally, the festival honors two filmmakers this year -- Italy's venerable Michelangelo Antonioni and Japan's Takeshi Kitano -- by presenting a pair of films by each director: Identification of a Woman and Beyond the Clouds (Antonioni), Sonatine and Fireworks (Kitano). The festival opens Friday, January 30, and runs through Sunday, February 8, at the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts, 174 E. Flagler St., Miami. Call 305-372-0925 for tickets.

Six full-length reviews follow; see page 34 for short takes on other festival films. Festival schedule appears on page 33. New Times coverage of the fest concludes next issue.

The first frames of The Chambermaid and the Titanic suggest that we've been plunged into the fury of Hell itself, or at least into the caldron of an active volcano. A molten substance, yellow-hot as lava, flows in thick rivers of fire, sloshing and seething in the surrounding darkness. As we soon learn, however, this is simply a French foundry in 1912, and as the camera follows sooty workers slogging through mud and onto the train that will take them home, we see post-Industrial Revolution Europe as they saw it. This is a bleak, dirty, monochromatic world in which the monotony of grinding, hard labor is punctuated by the sparest of pleasures: a glass of brandy at a bar, a soothing bath administered by a loving wife.

One of the many lovely surprises in this French-Spanish-Italian collaboration is that this inhospitable environment is eventually revealed to be, against all odds, the source of an amazingly fertile imagination. Among the foundry workers is Horty, a handsome, amiable young man devoted to his pretty milkmaid wife Zoe (the remarkable Romane Bohringer). As played by the blindingly charismatic Olivier Martinez, Horty is an unassuming but natural charmer, a man of few words who nevertheless inspires the respect (and perhaps envy) of his fellow workers. No one is surprised when, for the third year in a row, Horty wins a company competition in which employees engage in a sort of working-class triathlon.

Horty's prize, presented with great fanfare by the foundry president, is a trip across the English Channel to witness the launching of the Titanic, already famous as a symbol of man's mastery of technology. The catch is that the trip is for one -- the boss has designs on Zoe -- so a fresh-scrubbed Horty arrives in England alone.

Just as deftly as he has acknowledged class differences at the foundry, Spanish director (and cowriter) Bigas Luna establishes Horty as a stranger in a strange land. Even in his best clothes, the poor Frenchman is clearly a foreigner among the pristine buildings and stylishly attired people of Southampton. It therefore makes sense when he agrees to let a stranded chambermaid from the Titanic share his hotel room. She too is French, not to mention a radiant beauty. The chambermaid Marie (Spanish actress Aitana Sanchez-Gijón), makes a fairly brazen attempt to seduce Horty. Although he's tempted, he reluctantly resists. When he awakens she's gone, and he last glimpses her as she poses for a photograph while loading luggage onto the ship.

At this point the story appears to have reached a dead end. What could possibly sustain it further? Marie is on the ship, whose fate we know; even on the slim chance that she's a survivor, it's unlikely she would return to seek out the man who rejected her. But director Luna, best known in the United States for 1992's piquant Jamón, Jamón, has much more in store. He sends Horty, with the photo of Marie, back to France, where he picks up on gossip that the promotion awaiting him at work is the result of his wife's infidelity. The devastated Horty retreats to the tavern. To compensate for the betrayal he feels, he begins to embellish his memories of the unconsummated romance, spinning an increasingly elaborate account of sexual escapades for an eager audience of villagers.

It would be criminal to divulge the intricately linked series of twists that propel the plot from here on. Suffice it to say that the movie becomes a meditation on the nature and significance of storytelling. We slip back and forth in time with Horty, in and out of memories and fantasies, until the line between real and imagined is hopelessly blurred -- which is the point. Fact and fiction, the story suggests, are symbiotic.

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Robin Dougherty
Michael Mills
Michael Yockel