Film Scouts Diaries

1996 Miami Film Festival Diaries
Return to Sunny Miami

by David Sterritt

February 11, 1996

"For the love of film." That's a nice slogan for a filmfest, and the folks who run the Miami Film Festival--now in its 13th year--appear to love an admirably wide range of movies, including some more challenging than you might expect to find in a city known mainly for its sunshine-and-frolic scene. Although it's often mentioned as a lightweight event with regional rather than national importance, I found the latest edition of the Miami festival surprisingly substantial in its programming and in its lineup of seminars (one of which I was invited here to speak in) on topics as varied as film criticism, new technologies for the movie business, and the amazing work of Kenneth Anger, a veteran avant-gardist whose presence lent the affair an extra touch of slyly subversive class.

After commencing with Fernando Trueba's new Hollywood picture, "Too Much," about which I heard scarcely one positive word, the festival tried again for a crowd-pleaser with "A Midwinter's Tale," the new Kenneth Branagh comedy about an actor who tries to resuscitate his tenth-rate career by directing a production of "Hamlet" with a low budget, an equally modest talent pool, and a middle-of-nowhere church for a theater. Branagh got his start in filmmaking with the badly overrated "Henry V" and has gone pretty much downhill ever since, with undistinguished efforts like "Peter's Friends" and "Frankenstein" scuttling his short-lived reputation as an Orson Welles clone who could write, produce, and star in just about anything. Wisely if belatedly, he's been scaling back his schedule lately, participating only as an actor in the current "Othello"--where I concur with the majority opinion that he's sensationally good--and limiting himself to writing and directing "A Midwinter's Tale," which is a tad more engaging than his earlier offerings, portraying an often-overlooked cranny of the theatrical world with what seems to be real and thoughtful affection.

The theater world also provided the backdrop for Fina Torres's bouncy "Celestial Clockwork," starring Ariadna Gil as a Venezuelan singer who flees her fiance in Caracas and heads for Paris with dreams of becoming an opera diva. I found it less than irresistible, but the Miami audience loved its quick-moving melange of Verdi, salsa, and the Cinderella story.

Lest anyone think Miami leans too far toward amiable confections like the Branagh and Torres pictures, festivalgoers got to experience "Hate," by young French auteur Matthieu Kassovitz, who does for Paris what John Singleton and the Hughes Brothers have done for American cities, showing the sadly dehumanized lives of kids stuck in a rotten housing project. Spectators not sufficiently depressed by this French nightmare could also indulge in "Underground," the semidelirious film about former Yugoslavia that captured the grand prize at Cannes last spring. Yugoslavian native Emir Kusterica's epic comments on recent Balkan history via the wild and woolly tale of several families who scurry into hiding during World War II, and find themselves surrounded by chaos every time they venture out of their cellar during the next 50 years. Trimmed a bit from its original hubristic length of more than three hours, it may yet arrive on commercial screens. Stay tuned, because it's worth a look despite its many flaws. As is Kusterica's best movie to date, the 1989 comedy-drama "Time of the Gypsies," which also screened at Miami.

Other items on the program included Carlos Saura's superbly expressive "Flamenco," an exhilarating compendium of Spanish songs and dances; Eliseo Subiela's plodding Argentine fantasy "Don't Die Without Telling Me Where You're Going," which spoils a whimsically written screenplay with overwrought acting and directing; and "The Voice of the Moon," an overheated comedy distinguished only by the fact that it was Federico Fellini's last film. Plus a welcome showing of "The White Balloon," a charming Iranian comedy that's now arriving in American theaters. Not a bad bill of fare for a festival that offers sun and surf as well.

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