33rd Annual Miami International Film Festival Brings the Heat

ScreenerBlog

After opening with Álex de la Iglesia’s madcap comedy My Big Night, the 33rd edition of the Miami International Film Festival (MIFF) kept its first weekend rolling along with sun, fun and nuns. OK, no nuns, but there are only so many rhyming options.

Of the five films I was able to catch over the weekend, three of them—completely unintentionally—were by women. In fact, in a conversation with Executive Director and Director of Programming Jaie Laplante, he mentioned that about a third of the festival’s films were directed by women, a much higher proportion than normal. That dovetails nicely with the fest’s Google Seminar Series on gender and racial gaps in film and tech, of which I was able to attend two compelling sessions.

After a morning bike ride around the city of Miami (lobster rolls consumed: 1), my first post-Big Night film was Rodrigo Plá’s A Monster with a Thousand Heads, about a wife and mother (Jan Raluy) who goes into hostage-taking mode when the insurance policy she's been paying for for 16 years refuses to pony up for the necessary treatment for her husband’s fatal illness. As was pointed out in a pre-film introduction, though Monster is set in Mexico, it tells a very universal story. Stateside audiences, certainly, have all had to wrestle with insurance companies and bureaucracy gone wild. Monster was a bit too predictable for my tastes—interspersed throughout the story is voice-over from characters giving testimony at the main character’s trial, a decision that’s frankly baffling—but it benefits from some good performances. Notable among those are Raluy and Sebastián Aguirre—who starred in one of my favorite 2015 films, Alonso Ruiz Palacios’s Güeros—as the main character's teenage son.

Next up was Spain, the country with the second highest number of films at MIFF after America. The film in question was Paula Ortiz’s The Bride (La Novia), a romantic drama based on the play Blood Wedding by literary icon Federico García Lorca. Spanish TV stars Inma Cuesta, Asier Etxeandia and Álex García star as a trio of childhood friends caught in a bloody love triangle. The film, shot in Spain and Turkey, is breathtakingly gorgeous and boasts a captivating supporting performance from veteran actress Luisa Gavasa as a steely-eyed mother-in-law. In discussion with the film’s producer, Rosana Tomas, I learned that those were the two categories The Bride was victorious in at the 2016 Goya Awards, where it received a total of 12 nominations. One of those nominations was for Best Original Score, and no wonder, as Tomas and her fellow producers managed to bag none other than legendary composer Shigeru Umebayashi (In the Mood for Love).

My last full day at the festival, I caught two films: The Olive Tree and Disorder. The former film, part of the festival’s Marquee Series, was preceded by an interview with director Icíar Bollaín, who’s had three films at the festival before. The Olive Tree is based on a real-life situation in Castellón, Spain, where 2,000 year old trees used to be dug up and sold to countries around the world. (The practice still continues in parts of Spain, though in Castellón the trees are now protected.) With her beloved grandfather on the brink of death, free-spirited Alma (Anna Castillo) comes to believe that the only way to save him is to reclaim his favorite tree, which now sits in the glass-walled lobby of a Germany energy company. Alma, together with her uncle and a friend who wants to be something more, set off in a stolen (wait, no, “borrowed”) truck to somehow convince the company to let them dig up the tree and cart it back home. The Miami audience loved the film, which deftly combines drama, comedy and environmental themes in a light-hearted but still poignant road-trip formula.

My final film before heading back to the sadly palm tree-less New York was Disorder, from director Alice Winocour. Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts, continuing his recent (and welcome) tradition of popping up in movie after movie, stars as Vincent, an ex-soldier suffering from PTSD who takes a job protecting the wife (Diane Kruger) and son of a Lebanese businessman who may or may not have some shady dealings going on. The film expertly builds tension as Vincent becomes more and more convinced that he and his charges are being followed. At the same time, he develops his own unhealthy fixation on the surrogate family he’s found himself a part of. Rather, he thinks of himself as part of a family; for the wife, Jessie, he’s more “that quiet, weird security guard who keeps looming around and staring at me for a little too long.” Schoenaerts was the perfect choice for this role, combining as he does equal measures of menace and vulnerability. Admirably, Disorder doesn’t go the “well-meaning guy falls for out-of-his-league woman who eventually reciprocates his affection, because every ‘no’ becomes a ‘yes’ if you stare at her long enough” route. This is very much not that movie. It’s easy to see that as a partial result of Disorder being directed and co-written by a woman; certainly, 2016 Best Foreign Film Oscar nominee Mustang, which Winocour co-wrote with director Deniz Gamze Ergüven, was widely praised for its overtly feminist bent.

Though I’ve regretfully had to take my leave, the Miami International Film Festival is still ongoing, and will be so until this Sunday, March 13th. Upcoming screenings include political documentary Weiner, Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan and Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures, Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato's portrait of iconic photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. You can check out the entire schedule on the MIFF website.