By Oscar Jubis.
It hardly seems to matter that the Miami International Film Festival has a new director, the third in four years, because the festival has a blueprint for success and a well-established identity. The 28th edition boasted a good selection of 73 features reflecting the festival’s traditional predilection for films by emerging filmmakers and films from Spanish-speaking countries. The programming strategy is substantiated by the continued vitality of filmmaking in Spain and Latin America and the need to appeal to the hometown audience. The rest of the world is well represented in the programme, particularly Europe. However, at times the festival shows its lack of ambition. For instance, the decision to discontinue press screenings was lamented by several colleagues.
This year the festival fortuitously chose to honor Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier with a Career Achievement Tribute. Ms. Bier won the Golden Globe and the Oscar for her latest film, In a Better World. Bier has, along with her screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen, specialized in emotionally intense dramas about Scandinavian families enmeshed in third-world events. In a Better World stars Mikael Persbrandt as an altruistic doctor who gravitates between his family in Copenhagen and a pro-bono practice in rural Kenya. The plot presents parallel scenarios that challenge his pacifist, progressive view of human nature. In a Better World broaches the applicability of moral standards in disparate societies. As usual, Bier’s inquisitive hand-held camera has a life of its own and the performances are impeccable. Lamentably, In a Better World is diminished by overemphasis and moments of melodramatic excess.
Beyond, the directing debut of Swedish actress Pernilla August, has comparable visceral power without the occasional sensationalism that mars Bier’s film. Beyond, adapted by August from Susanna Alakoski’s bestselling novel, won Critics’ Week at Venice and features global star Naomi Rapace and yet, no U.S. distributor has stepped in to purchase the rights to exhibit it. Rapace plays Leena, a seemingly happy wife and mother of two who has been estranged from her mother for a decade. When her husband Johan finds out that he has a mother-in-law and that she is gravely ill, he convinces a wary Leena to sojourn to her hometown in southern Sweden with kids in tow. The character of Johan, who is played by Rapace’s husband Ola, is the audience surrogate who uncovers the mysteries of Leena’s past along with the audience. The visit triggers Leena’s formative memories, which we see in grainy flashbacks with the very talented Tehilla Blad playing the younger version of Rapace’s character, just like she did in the Millennium films. The emerging themes of immigration, alcoholism and family violence are freshly handled despite their ubiquity in Scandinavian dramas. The variegated emotional tones of the film are superbly augmented by a tastefully restrained but affecting music score. Beyond avoids the determinism and pessimism that afflict similar family dramas. As the title suggests, Pernilla August’s film is ultimately transcendental.
Unlike Beyond, the documentary Armadillo does not manage to distinguish itself from other films with comparable ambitions. Armadillo depicts the experiences of Danish soldiers fighting against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Like Restrepo, its title refers to a military base where the soldiers are stationed. If you have seen Restrepo, The War Tapes, Gunner Palace or a number of documentaries aiming to reflect the “ground truth” from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, you’d swear you’ve seen Armadillo before, even though the language spoken is foreign to our ears.
The Serbian film Tilva Ros (Red Hill) was the single bad film I watched at the festival this year. Freshman writer director Nikola Lezaic’s film, about the last carefree summer in the lives of two buddies fresh off high school, is insipid and indulgent. Tilva Ros simply fails to elicit interest in its characters, who are enamored of the most idiotic aspects of America’s youth culture, vulgar pranks and Jackass-styled stunts, for instance. The walkouts at the screening I attended were copious, with only about a quarter of the audience still in their seats by film’s end. Lezaic deserves no better.
Contrastingly, festivalgoers appeared delighted by Mamma Gógó, an autobiographical film from veteran Icelandic writer/director Fridrik Fridriksson. Mamma Gógó concerns the paradoxical coincidence that the director had just completed a film about elderly characters that escape from a countryside nursing home, the Oscar-nominated Children of Nature (1991), when he was faced with the need to place his own mother in a similar facility because her Alzheimer symptoms were affecting her ability to live independently. Mamma Gógó introduces a romantic, magic-realist element in the apparitions of Mamma Gógó’s deceased husband, who is very much alive to her. Fridriksson maintains a bittersweet tone throughout while effortlessly finding the humor in the characters’ predicament. Mamma Gógó deserves a wide audience.
Unlike Mamma Gógó, the grandfather suffering from Alzheimer’s in Manuel Martín Cuenca’s Half of Oscar is a minor character who serves as a catalyst to the reunification of distanced siblings Oscar and María. The palpable tension between them is rooted in a past that is revealed gradually and reticently. Half of Oscar, which is enjoying its American premiere at the festival, is a film about the lingering grief caused by impossible love. The film is set in the southern Spanish town of Almería, where many a spaghetti western was shot because the vistas evoke the American southwest. Cuenca’s masterful use of the landscape befits a fervent admirer of John Ford. Half of Oscar strives for simplicity and understatement throughout. It never veers into melodrama as many films with similar taboo scenarios do. The decision to eschew any musical accompaniment indicates the filmmaker’s trust in the power of the story and the performances to impact the viewer’s emotions without artificial enhancement. Half of Oscar is, indeed, quietly devastating.
A Useful Life is perhaps the festival’s most endearing film. It’s a 67-minute, love letter to cinephilia from the small South American nation of Uruguay. The protagonist, Jorge, is the chubby, unfashionable director of a struggling cinemateca in Montevideo. The depth of Jorge’s passion for cinema becomes evident in the first scene, when we watch him voicing Spanish translations of the intertitles of the long, silent classic Greed for a very sparse audience. Jorge has not been able to pay rent for 8 months and a foundation that partly underwrites the cinema decides to withdraw its support because of dwindling attendance. The closure of the cinemateca appears imminent. Meanwhile Jorge, inspired by Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly musicals, woos a schoolteacher. The nostalgic A Useful Life will be treasured by anyone who shares Jorge’s passion for a pre-digital cinephilia. Kudos to the Global Film Initiative for selecting Federico Veiroj’s miniature for stateside distribution in 2011.
The Global Film Initiative is also distributing Diego Lerman’s The Invisible Eye, a film of wider appeal than A Useful Life. Lerman’s two previous features, Suddenly and Meanwhile, were low-budget, contemporary slice-of-life narratives with an improvisational feel. The Invisible Life is a completely different kind of movie. It is a political, period film with outstanding production values and a predictable if thoroughly engrossing and engaging plot. The Invisible Life concerns the relationship between a young, sexually repressed teacher (Julieta Zylberberg) and the despotic principal of an elite, private high school that serves as a microcosm of Argentinian society during the dark years of military dictatorship. Lerman’s film is a bit too reminiscent of The Official Story, the powerful Argentinian film that won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1985, and many films set in totalitarian educational institutions. However, Zylberberg’s magnificent performance kept my interest from flagging. I hope we get to see more of her work in the future.
It is not surprising that one of the most accomplished films shown at the MIFF was directed by world-class Chilean documentarian Patricio Guzmán. His 3-part The Battle of Chile, a landmark of politically invested filmmaking, forced Guzman into exile in France following the coup d’état orchestrated by the C.I.A. and right-wing members of the Chilean military. More recently, Guzmán directed the definitive film on socialist president Salvador Allende (2004). Nostalgia for the Light, Guzmán’s latest film-essay, has a wider scope than his previous work. It is set in the Atacama Desert, the driest place on earth. Its weather and ecology make it an ideal place to conduct astronomical observations. The huge installations built in the middle of nowhere for that purpose are formidable subjects for the camera. The pairing of classical music and images of slow-moving telescopes and their sliding enclosures evokes scenes from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Atacama‘s extreme dryness has preserved the oldest signs of pre-Columbian life found in the continent. Guzmán’s clear, thoughtful voice-over draws parallels between astronomical and archaeological quests. The approach is both poetic and philosophical with nary a pretentious moment. The pathos comes when a third strand is weaved into the narrative. Atacama was also the site of tragic injustice. It was there, in abandoned mines, where thousands of political prisoners were tortured, killed, and anonymously buried when Gral. Pinochet was in power. The tireless, largely futile search for the remains of the dead by surviving relatives imbues Guzmán’s visually alluring meditation on time, space and remembrance with a devastating emotional gravity. Nostalgia for the Light is a film that reflects the vitality of contemporary Latin American cinema and validates the privileging of films from the region by the Miami International Film Festival.
Oscar Jubis is a Ph. D. candidate in Film Studies at the University of Miami.