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Posted: Mar. 06 2009 3:09pm - Post no. in this thread: 1

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Miami International Film Festival finds a new edge

BY RENE RODRIGUEZ
rrodriguez@MiamiHerald.com

Now in its 26th year, the Miami International Film Festival is easy to take for granted. A reliable fixture on South Florida's late-winter calendar, the event is like an old friend who comes to town every March, bringing along a selection of international cinema with an emphasis on Latin American and Spanish-language productions.

The 2009 festival, which opens Friday and runs through March 15, still has plenty of natural gimmes for Miami, such as Celia the Queen, a loving documentary tribute to the life and career of the legendary singer; El nido vacio (Empty Nest), an Argentine comedy with a touch of magic realism about a middle-age couple (Cecilia Roth and Oscar Martinez) figuring out what to do with themselves after their children have grown up and moved out; Una semana solos (A Week Alone), the story of suburban Argentine kids left to their own devices by vacationing parents; or Cachao: Uno Mas, a celebration of late Cuban bassist Israel ''Cachao'' Lopez hosted by Miami homeboy Andy Garcia.

Those selections sell themselves. But look more closely at the slate of 97 feature-length and 40 short films and you'll notice a marked -- and welcome -- difference.

Echoing the spirit of the festival's early editions, this year's lineup is more interested in challenging its audience and broadening its cinematic horizons than in coddling them. Although the roster of directors includes such familiar festival names as Gus Van Sant, Lucrecia Martel, Diego Lerman and Jane Campion, the overall feel is brighter, fresher, with a slate crammed with movies by international filmmakers who embody the ongoing trends of neo-realist storytelling, intimate character study and social discourse via fictional plotlines.

''This year's festival is not radically different in structure,'' says Vivian Rodriguez, executive director of cultural affairs for Miami Dade College, which is presenting the festival for the sixth year. ``We still have the Ibero-American competition, which is where audiences find the biggest comfort level with a lot of Spanish-language films.

''But we also wanted this year's festival to mature and take a larger view and present the kinds of films we might not have presented before,'' Rodriguez says. ``We wanted to push the parameters and see what people are doing with film at the edges. What can you do with this medium and what can you say with it as an art form? . . . It is definitely an edgier program.''

For example: Paraiso (Paradise), the latest by Cuban-American Leon Ichaso (El Super, Bitter Sugar, El Cantante), focuses on a Cuban balsero who arrives in South Florida and grabs his shot at the good life by taking advantage of everyone he meets -- eventually resorting to murder when people get in his way.

Shot in Miami on digital video for a tiny budget, Paraiso is a stylish and captivating take on cultural assimilation, South Florida-style -- a bracing blast of uncompromising honesty that will surprise anyone expecting another poignant and heartwarming drama about Cuban exiles assimilating to life in the United States.

Afterschool, the indelible debut of director Antonio Campos, 25, takes another familiar subject -- adolescent anomie within the halls of a prep school -- and explores it in an astonishingly bold and hypnotic manner, using stunning widescreen compositions, breathtakingly long takes and elliptical storytelling to capture the essence of a troubled teen's struggle to preserve his moral bearings in the face of an all-consuming alienation.

Tony Manero, the study of a middle-age Chilean man obsessed with winning a John Travolta-lookalike contest during Pinochet's reign of terror in the late 1970s, turns what sounds like a comic premise into a disturbing exploration of the corrosive effects of pop culture.

Even this year's recipient of the festival's career-achievement tribute veers away from the comfortable and predictable. Legendary wild man Abel Ferrara (Bad Lieutenant, King of New York, The Funeral) will be honored for the first time in this country with a series of screenings of past and current films, including Mary, his 2005 seldom-screened tale of the actress (Juliette Binoche) playing Mary Magdalene in a biblical drama directed by an arrogant director (Matthew Modine) who casts himself as Jesus Christ.

''This year's festival is not a program for children,'' admits festival director Tiziana Finzi, a veteran of the Locarno and Venice Film Festivals who is overseeing Miami's programming for the first time. ``I'm a little scared about what the reaction is going to be to some of these films, but I've been getting e-mails from directors all over the world saying the program is very, very strong and powerful for America.''

Reflecting the economy, the 2009 festival has fewer films, fewer venues (the Intracoastal and Byron-Carlyle cinemas will not participate this year), fewer screenings at the tough-to-fill Gusman Center for the Performing Arts and smaller, more intimate parties.

Advance ticket sales, too, have been slower.

''They're picking up a little now,'' Rodriguez says. ``Maybe changing things up had something to do with it, too. But at their best, the arts are about research and experimentation. Just like we do with Cultura del Lobo (MDC's international performance series), we're not only presenting the easy mainstream. It's a perfect role for an educational institution like the college. I think this year's festival is a giant candy store. It's not all pretty candy, but it's a very exciting lineup.''

Finzi says festival organizers have been making a ''marketing guerrilla'' across Miami in the past week, hoping to push specific films toward the audiences that might appreciate them best. But even if this year's festival is a harder sell than usual, Finzi says that sort of change will benefit the event's long-term future. And despite the more eclectic nature of the programming, the festival continues to develop its industry roots -- an essential part of raising its international profile -- with the introduction of an industry office that will cater exclusively to pairing filmmakers with potential financiers, along with scheduled visits by representatives from such studios as DreamWorks Pictures, The Weinstein Co. and Miramax Films.

''My lineup may be more radical than past ones, but after 25 years, all the film festivals around the world are having to find a way to change and stay fresh,'' Finzi says. ``This is my first time in Miami, and the festival has been a challenge for me. And I think it's a challenge for the audience, too. So we'll see. But I have discovered there is a big part of this city that is very intellectual and very curious. If people are accepting of me, and I can stay, I plan to keep reaching out to that audience.''


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