Film: The Latin Condition

One of the first newspaper assignments I ever had was interviewing Gregory von Hausch, president and CEO of the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival (FLIFF), for the now-defunct monthly She Times. The year was 1995, and the event’s tenth edition featured an assortment of American indies that quickly vanished from memory. (Even though I deemed it a misfire at the time, Restless, a collaboration between the creative team behind Longtime Companion – screenwriter Craig Lucas and the late director Norman Rene – is the only selection from that year that I remember well.)

Over the 17 years that followed I watched the festival grow (and grow). The grab-bag, smorgasbord approach to programming remains in place, but I have definitely noticed a beefing up of the month-long affair’s international fare. Spanish-language entries in particular, usually the domain of Miami festivals in the South Florida movie landscape, shine particularly bright this year. (We’ll get to David Trueba’s Madrid, 1987, which opens this weekend at the Coral Gables Art Cinema, at the end of this column.)

My favorite movie of the titles I pre-screened in anticipation of the 27th FLIFF, which kicks off Friday night at Gulfstream Park with a tribute to James Caan, was the Argentinean charmer All In. The latest effort from acclaimed director Daniel Burman (Lost Embrace) purports to be a fluffy romantic comedy, the lighthearted tale of a pathological liar who’s really good at poker and really lousy at long-term relationships. What a pleasure, then, to discover unexpected layers to Burman’s narrative as he delves into his lead character’s baggage-heavy pathology with far more nuance than this material would suggest.

The film marks the acting debut of Uruguayan singer-songwriter Jorge Drexler, who won a 2005 Oscar for penning a song for The Motorcycle Diaries and actually gave an all-sung acceptance speech. He plays Uriel Cohan, a divorced financier who has built a wall to keep friends and loved ones alike at arm’s length. He has also allowed his talent at cards and anonymous motel sex take top priority in his life. At the end of the day, though, Uriel still yearns for Gloria (Valeria Bertuccelli), the girl he dated in his twenties and who abruptly gave him the boot. (The sex, at least, was good, a fact he reveals to his doctor when he considers getting a vasectomy.) A second chance to get it right with his dream girl materializes when he runs into her at a casino. Having returned from Europe to settle her late father’s estate, Gloria is struggling with her own issues, neatly encapsulated in her testy relationship with her mother Susan (Oscar winner Norma Aleandro), a literary radio host.

Even though Burman follows some of the genre’s familiar story beats, the way Uriel and Gloria’s courtship plays out appropriates the rhythms of everyday life. Burman, in effect, turns All In into a South American variation of a classic Hollywood remarriage comedy (The Philadelphia Story, anyone?) Okay, so Drexler is hardly Cary Grant, but he does a commendable job of balancing Uriel’s insecurities with a genuine desire to improve his quality if life, and the virtue of Burman’s direction is that it turns potentially superficial subject matter into a profound, keenly observed character study without sacrificing the film’s scrappy, easygoing charm.

Burman’s not the only internationally renowned filmmaker leaving his personal stamp during this year’s FLIFF. Spanish bad boy Álex de la Iglesia (The Perfect Crime, The Last Circus) might not enjoy the same name recognition as, say, Pedro Almodóvar, but the former comic book artist has quietly built a niche for himself as a ruthless satirist whose violent sensibility brings to mind a pre-Pan’s Labyrinth Guillermo del Toro. As Luck Would Have It, the Bilbao native’s most mainstream effort to date, is a strange hybrid of deadpan social satire and domestic melodrama, and as such allows de la Iglesia to display a newfound maturity and restraint that might have some of his fanboy admirers crying foul. Sincerity, I’m surprised to report, becomes him.

The plot kicks into gear when unemployed ad executive Roberto Gómez (comedian José Mota), devastated after a job interview with a former colleague doesn’t go his way, drives to Cartagena to seek out the hotel where he and his Mexican wife Luisa (a de-glammed Salma Hayek) spent their honeymoon. Much to his surprise, the restored ruins of a Roman theater stand in its place. After sneaking away to a restricted area, Roberto finds himself the victim of a freak accident that lands the once-successful inventor of soft drink slogans on top of a platform with an iron rod stuck in the back of his head. The stage for a media circus has been set, quite literally. If the story’s beginning to sound a little familiar, that’s because de la Iglesia, working from Robert Feldman’s screenplay, is borrowing the story template of Billy Wilder’s film noir classic Ace in the Hole, in which a newshound played by Kirk Douglas exploited the life-and-death struggle of a treasure seeker trapped in a cave. What’s novel about de la Iglesia’s approach is that in his film, Mota’s hanging-by-a-thread opportunist is both the victim and the media whore.

Hayek, who acts as the movie’s conscience in the face of her husband’s eroding moral compass, persuasively tones down her star appeal, but she is also saddled with spouting most of de la Iglesia’s heavy-handed, almost-all-mass-media-are-evil agenda. The filmmaker seeks to retain the biting irony of his earlier films while also getting the audience to empathize with Roberto and his family. The gambit works for a while, but eventually de la Iglesia is unable to sustain this delicate balancing act between satire and pathos. As Luck Would Have It’s inconsistencies, however, are redeemed to a large extent by the movie’s final ten minutes, in which the director briefly – and very effectively – reverts to his old goretastic ways and delivers some of his least sardonic, most assured work.

The best Iberian release hitting South Florida screens this weekend, however, is David Trueba’s incisive, bracingly claustrophobic weekend-from-hell chronicle Madrid, 1987, which pits Miguel (venerated screen veteran José Sacristán), a cynical newspaper columnist with a taste for young ass opposite Ángela (María Valverde) the college student intent on interviewing him for journalism class. Keen on getting into this nubile co-ed’s pants, the bespectacled horndog suggests moving their stimulating tête-a-tête from a neighborhood café to the apartment of a painter who lets him use the premises to bang hot chicks, er, write in peace.

One thing leads to another, with Ángela firmly resisting Miguel’s icky advances, until they both find themselves locked inside a tiny bathroom. Did I mention Miguel’s in the buff and Ángela’s sole article of clothing is a towel? Trueba turns the screws relentlessly on this inter-generational meeting of minds. (Could it also become a meeting of bodies?) He also finds ways to shoot the cramped setting in ways that prevent Madrid, 1987 from ever feeling tedious. Non-Spanish speakers will probably miss many of Trueba’s delicious dialogue, which is delivered by Sacristán in his irresistible deep voice. The film’s ending lacks the resonance that I was hoping for, but most of Trueba’s chamber drama is flawlessly executed.

So there you have it, folks. Worthwhile options en español to satisfy that international-cinema craving. All In screens October 26th, 27th and 28th at various locations across Broward County as part of the 27th FLIFF. As Luck Would Have It screens October 24th and 25th. Log on here for showtimes and venues. Madrid, 1987′s exclusive Miami run starts Friday at the Coral Gables Art Cinema.

About Ruben Rosario

Speak Your Mind