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Miami 2011: “Phase 7” is a Great Zombie Movie Without the Zombies; “No Return” is Not to Be Missed

Miami 2011: "Phase 7" is a Great Zombie Movie Without the Zombies; "No Return" is Not to Be Missed

Secret screenings seem all the rage at film festivals these days, yet the Miami International Film Festival is not the sort I’d expect to hold one. Any regional event like this could do it well, though, as long as they don’t venture too far outside the focus of the fest. It makes sense that Miami’s catalog teased something new from Argentina, fitting the Ibero-American cinema interests here, while also promising it’s a “brilliant genre thriller.” And it would be shown at midnight. I knew it had to be something headed to South by Southwest right afterward, guessing either “Phase 7” (“Fase 7”) or “Cold Sweat.” It was the former.

I can assure everyone in Austin that this crazy, funny horror exercise will do quite well in the Midnighters section over there. I actually might want to see it again with the SXSW crowd, since that’s a whole different demographic, I think, than the audience at MIFF. I would wager that more laughs were found in Miami, as I’m certain a lot of the humor went over better with those who understand Spanish (about half the auditorium by my estimate). But the violent and kinetic plot, as well as the throwback warped 80s-like score (by Guillermo Guareschi), may be more up the alley of the Alamo Drafthouse kids. They’ll enjoy a zombie movie even if it doesn’t have any zombies, right?

Technically it’s not a zombie movie at all. Just a film dealing with a viral outbreak affecting much of the world, now hitting Buenos Aires. One apartment building has been quarantined because a resident has been diagnosed and taken away, and this building is where the entirety of “Phase 7” takes place. The protagonist is Coco, a young, naive and somewhat unconcerned husband and father-to-be, played by Daniel Hendler, who was previously great in a one-location Argentine ensemble film called “Lost Embrace.” If you’ve seen that, imagine if all its shopkeeper characters went nuts and started shooting each other in preemptive self-defense, and you’ll kind of have an idea of what this feels like.

Many genre film lovers (myself included) appreciate a movie that barely shows the monster, creature or other threat, as we instead primarily get to watch the characters figure out their means of survival and interact amongst themselves while a hidden danger looms. Here, the main threat is literally invisible, there’s only the phantom of evil, so what we’re left with is even more of that tension between the people attempting to stay alive. Residents of the building begin ganging up and turning on each other, suspecting the others of being sick. One old man, played by Argentine cinema legend Federico Luppi (Americans likely know him best as a favorite regular for Guillermo Del Toro), goes a little overboard, deciding that he’ll just start offing his neighbors before they can eliminate him. It’s up to Coco, who abandons his pregnant and oblivious wife (Jazmín Stuart) at home, and Horacio (Yayo Guridi), a militant survivalist with a stockpile of arms and other goods, to stop the paranoid kook.

Written and directed by Nicolás Goldbart, an editor (“Crane World;” “The Paranoids”) making his debut transition to the full filmmaker role (he also co-produced and of course edited this), “Phase 7” is intense, somewhat scary, and filled with slapstick and wit. All of this briskly paced and tightly constructed, as we should expect from a veteran of the cutting room. The script calls to mind a number of other microcosmic thrillers, like “Tremors,” any number of setting-restricted living dead flicks and, due to its occasional goofiness and many scenes confined to hallways and apartment staircases, “Delicatessen.” Were there any actual zombies in it, I’d say the tone is somewhere between “Shaun of the Dead” (not as brilliantly hilarious) and the “Dawn of the Dead” remake (not as frightening).

The only place it’s a bit thin is in its attempt at some greater relevance. Horacio, the survivalist, theorizes that the virus was unleashed by the rich as a response to the recent financial crisis, in order to lower the world’s population for the good of the economy. Argentinian filmmakers have often used, with good reason, global financial concerns as subtext, but here it seems a stretch. And going further into conspiracy theories with the cliche New World Order speech of George H.W. Bush causes the film to veer toward poignancy overkill. I love subtext more than anyone, but I would have been fine with “Phase 7” being just a simple, nutty kill-or-be-killed flick with minor references to Einstein’s thoughts on World War 4 and a general, timeless paranoia-fueled plot.

RIYL: “Dawn of the Dead;” “Delicatessen;” “Quarantine”

Miguel Cohan’s “No Return” (“Sin retorno”) also works with a timeless, universal story concerning a specific contextual issue, yet its contemporary and local importance is both more substantial and less overt. It’s also from Argentina and features Federico Luppi in a major role. Here he plays the father of a man killed in a hit and run accident, the crime of which occurs during a terrific opening sequence played out apprehensively like something out of a more happenstance-fueled thriller (otherwise incompatible films like “Final Destination 2” and “11:14” came to mind). One man (Leonardo Sbaraglia) ends up hitting the poor guy and his bicycle, but not fatally. Soon after, though, and as you’re set up to expect, a distracted teen (Martin Slipak) makes the same mistake, this time killing the victim.

Both incidents are technically hit and runs, the latter clearly the worse, yet the younger driver gets away with only a very guilty conscience while the older is arrested for the crime. I won’t go more into the proceedings of the narrative, but I believe the first-time filmmaker (with a script co-written by his sister, Ana Cohan) means for us to be outraged that the wrong man is punished. However, it’s more complicated and debatable than that. Either way it’s a compelling yet seemingly simple drama about justice and impunity with unexpected turns, subtle details (it must be intentionally ironic that the first hitter is a ventriloquist by trade) and a surprisingly satisfying ending. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s remade by Hollywood regardless of whether it (deservedly) gets some good distribution in the U.S.

Regarding its appeal and reception, I want to point out that “No Return” was one of the most packed screenings I attended this past week at MIFF — never mind that it played in a smaller auditorium than others; a lot of people were still turned away — and one of the most engaged Q&A audiences I’ve ever witnessed. Unfortunately for me, a lot of the exchanges between the crowd and Cohan was in Spanish, so I didn’t get the whole discussion. I did learn, not that this was one of the most stimulating revelations of the conversation, that Argentina/Spain co-productions must have at least one scene shot in both countries. So even though “No Return” takes place almost completely in B.A., yet some interiors were shot overseas to comply to that rule. I don’t know why I’d never heard of it before.

RIYL: Alejandro González Iñárritu; “11:14;” “Mean Creek”/”Bully”

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