It was an unusually cold night in downtown Miami for the premiere of "Under the Same Moon," the opening film of the 25th Miami International Film Festival, but the reception inside the historic Gusman Center for the Performing Arts was anything but frosty. Nearly 1,600 attendees gave the film, about a Mexican mother and son living on opposite sides of the U.S. border, a thunderous standing ovation, a hopeful beginning for a festival with more than 150 films and a concentration on Ibero-American cinema.
"All the cultures collide here," "Moon" director Patricia Riggen said of Miami. "The movie is bi-cultural, and Miami is bi-cultural, so...I'm very excited." She's also excited about this: The film will be distributed nationally by Fox Searchlight later this month.
Other Ibero-American selections included the solid Uruguayan film "The Pope's Toilet," about people in an impoverished community on the Brazilian border who invest their life savings in business ventures, hoping to profit from a visit from Pope John Paul II. Expecting people to need a bathroom, one man invests in a pay toilet. The uneven Argentinean documentary "Stars" also has poor people as its focus, but in a different regard: in a shantytown dwelling near Buenos Aires, the locals have banded together to create an artistic enclave for television and film productions. "They play poor people very well," quips the leader of the troupe, Julio Arrieta, about his actors, "but they can also step outside themselves and star as thieves, bad guys, etc."
The Chilean film "Scrambled Beer" was an effective and trippy time warp comedy that goes in unexpected directions; the story is about a guy who drinks eggs blended in malt beer and wakes up at random times within a three-week period. "Miguel & William," from Spain, fictionally places Miguel de Cervantes and William Shakespeare at a Spanish castle and has them battle (via a play writing contest, of course) for a hand of a beautiful woman. Think "Shakespeare in Love," only more silly. Not all the Ibero-American films were good. Gael Garcia Bernal's "Deficit," in which he both stars and directs, is a dreadful display of unchecked Mexican teenage hedonism that goes nowhere. The Spanish film "Mataharis" also missed the mark, never quite blending its intriguing story of three female private investigators into anything interesting enough to be worth watching.
This being Miami in the winter, celebrities came out in droves. Stars Patricia Clarkson and Chris Cooper were here for the underwhelming period comedy "Married Life" (which co-stars Pierce Brosnan and Rachel McAdams), director David Gordon Green ("Undertow") answered questions after the screening of his superb "Snow Angels," while Kate Hudson appeared for her short film "Cutlass."
Helen Hunt wrote, produced, directed and starred in "Then She Found Me," the story of an aging schoolteacher (Hunt) who desperately wants a baby but is abruptly left by her husband (Matthew Broderick). Her life gets more complicated when a woman (Bette Midler) claiming to be her birth mother suddenly appears, and when she begins to fall for a depressed single father (Colin Firth). Hunt called the film "a ten year labor of love" and said she's proud that "a festival that has this much cultural weight would give this very strange comedy about very troubled people this kind of screening."
Demi Moore and director Michael Radford ("Il Postino") were on hand with "Flawless," in which Moore plays an American working in the male-dominated 1960s London jewelry business. Michael Caine co-stars as a disgruntled employee of the company with an ingenious plan for a heist. "I was once going to produce a trailer that said that this is a movie with no sex, no violence, no action and no special effects, but it'll keep you nailed to your seat for 100 minutes," Radford said.
While the REEL Seminars featured industry experts on everything from how to pitch a movie to a close look at computer animated shorts, the inaugural REEL Music Scene featured documentaries and music videos that showcased international musicians. "Music is Miami, and Miami is music," said festival director Patrick de Bokay before the screening of "Africa Unite," a documentary about the late Bob Marley that was executive produced by Danny Glover, who was in attendance. Emilio Estefan, a music producer and husband to Gloria Estefan, was also on hand for the American premiere of his directorial debut "90 Miles The Documentary," which is a tribute to the musicians of his native Cuba.
The Florida Focus series spotlights films that were either made in Florida or have Florida-based stories. Notable among these selections was "Miami Noir: The Arthur E. Teele Story," a compelling documentary about the City of Miami Commissioner who committed suicide in the lobby of the "Miami Herald" building in July 2005. Given that the city is still feeling the impact of Teele's transgressions, directors and University of Miami seniors Josh Miller and Sam Rega's film received a warm response followed by a heated Q & A after the world premiere.
At 25 years, the Miami International Film Festival is at a curious crossroad. For roughly its first 20 installments it was a low-key community film series that could boast the introduction of Pedro Almodovar (and others) to American audiences. In the last five years it has grown into a massive 11-day event, with screenings at seven venues throughout the city and countless workshops, panels, parties and red carpets for movie buffs, industry shakers and celebrities to mingle and do business.
Whether or not the festival will have the prestige or drawing power to one day join the world's elite (Cannes, Sundance, Toronto, etc.) remains to be seen, but if that doesn't happen, it will not be for lack of trying.