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“There are lovely things in the world. Lovely that don’t endure and the lovelier for that.” The line is uttered more than once in Sunset Song, a unique sort of period drama that is both romantic yet earthy. To see the loveliness in anything is also to recognize that it can never last. British director Terence Davies has crafted a beautiful film about permanent impermanence shown through family, love and war during turn-of-the-20th-century rural Scotland.

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It’s been a while since I first saw the short film “El sol como un gran animal oscuro” or “The Sun Like a Big Dark Animal” by Bleeding Palm, a.k.a the filmmaking duo Ronnie Rivera and Christina Felisgrau. When I wrote about Borscht Corp., the group that helped facilitate the short film’s production, almost a year-and-a-half ago in the Miami New Times (Borscht Film Festival Returns With a Five-Day Showcase of Local Works), I didn’t even mention it (for shame). It went on to premiere at Sundance and has traveled to many film festivals since (including a screening at the Miami International Film Festival). Upon first viewing, I knew it was something special, but it’s a challenging film upon first sight. Despite any inclination to knee-jerk react to the seemingly archaic digital animation, there are many moments of beauty in “El sol como un gran animal oscuro” that stand in poetic contrast, from artist Agustina Woodgate’s reading of the eerily self-reflexive narrative (in Spanish with English subtitles) to the pulsing, beeping soundtrack by Otto von Schirach and Nayib Estefan

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After the rather rich but violent A Touch of Sin, China’s Jia Zhangke returns with something more intimate though no less critical of his country’s social fabric and the ideals of capitalism. Mountains May Depart follows a woman’s life as a young teacher at the start of the new millennium and into the future of 2025 as a lonely divorcée. Tao is exquisitely played Zhao Tao, Jia’s longtime collaborator and wife (She won the Knight Competition Best Performance award at this year’s Miami International Film Festival, where the film had its Florida premiere).

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“I am not Ulysses. No nostalgia for my country,” says the anthropologist Paul Dédalus (Mathieu Amalric) to a lover in Greece. With a title like My Golden Days, you might be forgiven to think this is indeed a nostalgia piece, but this is a film by Arnaud Desplechin, a French filmmaker who understands how to pick apart sentiment to its raw core. He understands that memories are fragments within shards of moments that wipe each other away and are never true records of the past. Time is a moment that as soon as it is considered has been altered from that moment. Desplechin is keenly aware of this, using cinematic devices like iris shots to transition between scenes that speak to the tunnel vision of memory and the filter of time. With My Golden Days, he focuses on first love and how it can haunt and form our beings as told in retrospect by Paul, who sometimes has trouble remembering things.

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The Clan may just be one of the most demented movies Argentina has ever produced. It’s a wide-eyed stare into the abyss of the legacy of its “Dirty War” of the ‘70s and ‘80s, where many opposed to the country’s dictatorship simply disappeared. During the South American nation’s transition to democracy a few supporters of the military junta had a hard time breaking habits. One fellow was Arquímedes Puccio, who dragged his wife and five children into complicity with schemes of kidnapping people for ransom.

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embrace of the serpent posterLast week, Embrace of the Serpent, a movie that will certainly go down as one of the best films that saw release in the United States in 2016, started playing in area art houses in South Florida. This writer caught it last year as part of “Gems,” an annual mini film festival hosted by Miami Dade College’s Miami International Film Festival. For the most part, during the weekend-long event, I could tell when I saw excellent work (The Assassin, My Golden Days) and rather problematic work (Youth, The Club). But Embrace fell into another kind of category as far as cinematic experiences go. It confounded me. I knew I saw a brilliant film, though I did not understand how it worked as well as it did. It reminded me of the first time, back in 1999, when I saw Eyes Wide Shut in theaters. I knew I saw another masterpiece by Stanley Kubrick, though I could not express exactly why it was so great. Several viewings later, having read the source material and written about it during my master’s degree, I came to understand it better and admire it deeper (I promise to publish the Lacanian analysis I wrote of the film by the end of the year).

It was a similar experience with Embrace of the Serpent. It took a second and even a third viewing before I could confidently understand what a masterpiece this film was. In speaking with at least four other film critics, over the months since I first saw the movie, I learned I was not the only with that same experience.

With it’s commercial release in 2016 last month by the marvelous indie studio Oscilloscope, it came time to reckon with this movie. I was honored that Michael Koresky of Film Comment, Criterion Collection and now Metrograph fame, allowed me to tangle with a close reading of it on Reverse Shot, the website he co-edits with Jeff Reichert. You can read my in-depth and somewhat spoilery review (but I think it will enhance a first time viewing, if you don’t want to invest in seeing it more than once) by jumping through the site’s logo below:

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As the film headed to Miami, earlier this month, I also could not pass on an opportunity to speak to the film’s director Ciro Guerra, who helped clarify some questions I had about it. Guerra explained that he wanted to respect the culture he represents on the big screen. His research was extensive, including spending months in parts of the Amazon. After reading two books written by two early 20th century European explorers of the region, the German ethnographer Theodor Koch-Grünberg and the ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes, he came up with the film’s dual narrative with co-screenwriter Jacques Toulemonde Vidal.

The film’s stories unfold by alternating between the narratives, one at the start of the 20th century and the other 40 years into the future. The film’s lead character is Karamakate, played by two native, non-actors, Nilbio Torres and the elder Antonio Bolivar, as he guides two different explorers based on the authors of the books Guerra used for research (Jan Bijvoet and Brionne Davis) on similar journeys in search of a near extinct plant with hallucinogenic properties called the yakruna. And don’t bother looking up yakruna. Its name was made up for the movie. “The Shaman asked to keep it fictional because those names are sacred,” said the director, speaking via phone from his home country of Colombia. “You shouldn’t learn them from a movie,” he added.

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It’s a mystical film both thematically and cinematically. The connection between landscape and setting and the similarities among the different people Karamakate encounters speaks to the ineffable tangents of time and place (he thinks of the two explorers as the same man, as the later one uses the older one’s book in furthering his knowledge). This begs for something other than a straight narrative, which Guerra fulfills throughout the movie. He harnesses this anti-linear approach to storytelling to make insightful connections between scenes that share locations at different times as well as connecting the two explorers Karamakate guides through the Amazon basin via their essential selves and not their physical bodies. There’s even a duality in the shaman’s two selves that transcends age.

Below are some highlights of our conversation that should not spoil the film but allow for some insight into it. There’s simply nothing like this movie, and the more prepared you are for it, the more thrilling it will feel. Below our abridged Q&A you will find a link to a story I wrote in the Miami New Times, last week, which goes further into the concepts that inform the film.

Independent Ethos: What did the non-actors who played Karamakate surprise you with in their performances?

Ciro Guerra: I was very concerned about that at the beginning of the process because these are real people who haven’t been acting, and they have no relationship to theater or to cinema, so I thought it was going to be difficult to ask them to act. But they may not have this contact, but they have this oral tradition that they have kept alive for centuries really. So they know how to tell a story and they really, really know how to listen, and it’s not that easy to find an actor who can listen. They were especially happy about making the film and being able to perform in their own language.

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What did either one of them bring to their roles that was special?

Nilbio, He’s more playful. He has a broader range. He could play very well if he’s angry. He could play very well if he’s sad. He could play with this very complex range of emotions because he’s really open to emotional experience. He’s a really dynamic actor. Antonio has the more serene approach. He just stands there and just with his existence, his gaze, looks at you. They were two completely different actors in a way, but what we did was we built on that. We constructed the two faces of a character, but they also trust their gut. They also helped us re-write part of the script to make them more accurate and true in many ways. It was a very creative process, a very collaborative process.

Where did you learn so much about pre-Colombian mysticism in the Amazon?

It was a long process of research. I didn’t know anything about it, but basically it was the writings of the explorers. They were my guides, at first, and then, when I arrived in the Amazon, I stayed about two and a half years, going back and forth and spending a lot of time with shamans, elders and different communities in the Amazon, learning about what makes the community different and special. It was very difficult at the beginning because in the Amazon you are constantly confronted. It’s just a different way of thinking from our own that it makes you wonder a lot of different things about who you are.

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The sequence at the end of the film is amazing. How did you create those special effects?

It’s iconography of the Barasana people. That’s the way they represent the spiritual world. When we made the film, we didn’t want to do a special effects show. It was something more primitive. It was something a child could draw.

For me, the final scenes recall 2001‘s stargate sequence. Was that an influence?

Some people have said that, and it’s surprising to me, but it also makes perfect sense because these guys, these explorers, were the ones that opened up these ideas of the spirituality to the people, and that was something that was very big in the ’60s. So it sort of comes full circle in a way.

But it wasn’t a direct influence?

No, no, no. Maybe not on a conscious level because 2001 is one of my favorite movies of all time, so maybe on an unconscious level it was.

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The musical score is incredible as well. It mixes electronics and native chanting. Can you tell me how this idea to mix the two came about?

It wasn’t just about using indigenous music, and that’s it. The film is about dialogue between two cultures, a dialogue that can be very violent at times, but it’s a story of cultures coming together, so the score is basically indigenous music in dialogue and the work of Western composers.

Why did you choose to shoot in black and white?

I couldn’t see the film in any other way. If I had to do it in color, I would prefer not to do it. It would be a completely different film.

This is the third time Colombia submitted one of your films to the Oscars. Now you are nominated. How does that make you feel?

It’s surprising. This year there were so many films by masters, and it was a surprise when we made the short list, but to be nominated is not something that you can see coming.

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You can read more of our conversation, including more on why Guerra shot in black and white, the quantum level of time and existence he learned from the Amazon tribes he encountered during the filmmaking process and how it influences his storytelling, in the Miami New Times by jumping through the link below:

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Hans Morgenstern

Embrace of the Serpent runs 125 minutes, is in Spanish, Portuguese, German, Catalan, Latin, Tikuna, Cubeo, Huitoto and maybe some other Amazonian dialects with English subtitles and is not rated (expect violent images and transcendence via natural hallucinogens). It is now playing in our South Florida area at the Tower Theater, Miami Beach Cinematheque, O Cinema Wynwood. To the north, in Broward it is playing at the Cinema Paradiso – Hollywood. For theaters in other parts of the U.S., where it is scheduled to continue to roll out through April, visit this link and scroll down to “screenings.” We first saw this movie as a guest of Miami International Film Festival’s Gems event, in October. All images in this post were provided by Oscilloscope, except for that of the director, which is from IMDB.com. Oscilloscope also provided a screener link for repeat viewings.

(Copyright 2016 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

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The 33rd edition of Miami Dade College’s Miami International Film Festival featured some strong movies, including at least a couple of films that this writer will remember by this year’s end as some of the best cinema had to offer in 2016. It might seem to early to recognize this, but when a movie makes you feel this way, it’s a rare and undeniable sensation. You just know when you see a masterstroke of cinema. That said, films that were not so inspiring were also easy to spot. Though, I can’t say I saw any all out stinkers this year.

Probably the most brilliant film of the final days of the festival was a documentary (to read about earlier films we’ve seen, check our previous article: The 33rd Miami International Film Festival – so far). Weiner follows disgraced politician Anthony Weiner, who was done in by his apparent compulsion to flirt and sext with young supporters. He resigned from his long-held seat in Congress in 2011, went into consulting work, but then made a bid for mayor of New York City, in 2013. The documentary looks back on this campaign, as it imploded due to the same kind of scandal that forced him out of Congress.

Weiner is a tragi-comic account on various levels. Filmmaker Josh Kriegman and his co-director, Elyse Steinberg, hold nothing back, while documenting the politician’s failed return to politics. It’s sad for the good intentions that inform his policy and for what he puts Huma Abedin, his wife and mother of their 2-year-old son, through, as the cameras relentlessly document every detail of the campaign falling apart, as yet another sexting scandal emerges. Yet Kriegman and Steinberg find the humor throughout. Every scene is brilliantly edited to heighten comic timing. In a Q&A after the screening, I asked Kriegman why he would use such a jokey tone to cut the film. He noted that he has known Weiner since before he married Abedin, a long-time aide to Hillary Clinton. Kriegman then went on to say the film’s tone was a reflection of his subject, noting Weiner actually has a sense of humor about it all. Although, Kriegman admitted, neither Abedin nor Weiner have seen the final film.

Josh Kriegman and Thom Powers

Thom Powers, the festival’s documentary programmer (pictured to Kriegman’s left on stage in the image above) said we were only the third audience to have seen Weiner, which debuted at Sundance earlier this year. It blew away critics and audiences at that festival, coming away with the Grand Jury Prize. Sundance Selects has since picked it up, and it will hit theaters in May.

Less likely to hit commercial theaters is The King of Havana, a rather grim story that unfolds in Havana (but was shot in the Dominican Republic) during the early ‘90s. It was known as a period of especially harsh destitution for the population of Cuba, after the fall of the Soviet Union. Agusti Villaronga’s adaptation of Pedro Juan Gutierrez’s novel follows Rey (Maykol David Tortoló), a young man who is sent to a juvenile prison after being falsely accused in the deaths of some family members. After he escapes, he embraces a hard scramble life on the streets of Havana and takes to his name (it means “king” in Spanish) despite it all, thanks to his only natural rich endowment: a large cock.

The gritty and episodic nature of the film recalls Hector Babenco’s Pixote (1981). There’s humor to be found, and the life and energy the lead actors bring to the film is incredibly charming, especially in the triangle of affection between Rey, his “wife” Magda (Yordanka Ariosa) and his transgender friend Yunisleidi (Héctor Medina). Some of the supporting performances, especially at the beginning, don’t measure up, however, setting up the film for an uphill battle to win over the audience’s suspension of disbelief. But it’s still a strong film, as it builds toward an inevitably tragic finale, punctuated by a disturbingly bleak end note for our hero.

Speaking of grim finales, the final film that I caught at the festival was Chronic by Mexican director Michel Franco, whose filmmaking style I fell in love with two festivals ago with After Lucia (Film Review: ‘After Lucia’ holds unflinching lens to bullying). With his first English language film, he stays true to his style, even opening the film from the view of a car dashboard. Though, here, the resonance of the shot is a bit diminished, considering the plot hardly involves a car, unlike After Lucia. The static, stationary shots focus on the complex personality of a nurse (Tim Roth) who assists patients in need of daily at home care. He seems to find great fulfillment in caring for these people, and the long shots capture that marvelously. However, there’s a profound loss of persona away from the patients, which oozes out of him in creepy ways. It’s a testament to both Roth’s performance and Franco’s style.

Franco was present at the screening, who spoke about getting to know the woman who took care of his grandmother in her final years. He said she inspired him to write the script. He said he met Roth at Cannes, when the actor was the president of the 2012 Certain Regard jury, which awarded its prize to After Lucia. He said Roth told him if he could make the nurse a man, he would be happy to play the role for free. And the rest was history.

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There were two more films I caught at the end of the festival that were less interesting though I would not exactly call them bombs. The closing night movie, The Steps by Canadian director Andrew Currie, featuring James Brolin, Jason Ritter and Christine Lahti was as predictable as it could be for a family drama that begs for its characters to connect and come to terms with their differences at the end. That doesn’t mean the journey to the film’s conclusion wasn’t sometimes fun. There were some hilarious moments that kept the film engaging to its warm and fuzzy ending. But it’s still just one of those minor movies that one will forget having seen, come next year.

Then there was the Spanish “comedy about life,” Truman, featuring a pair of Spanish language cinema’s most well-known actors, Ricardo Darín and Javier Cámara. It’s an over-long, meandering film, featuring a pair of friends who argue with a modest, even tone. It speaks to a friendship between guys that hardly scratches their emotional surface, even when faced with the fact that one of them is dying. It’s an admirable premise, but it begs for a more distinctive touch in writing and directing by Cesc Gay. It never seems to rise to what is supposed to be a climactic touch that speaks to the film’s title, which refers to one of the friends’ dog. It’s a sweet film, at times, but like The Steps, not quite as memorable a movie.

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The awards were handed out on Saturday night. It concluded with a party in the posh Brickell area of Downtown Miami, where the audience award winners were tallied after the closing night film. The short film winner was “Tracks” and the feature film winner ended up being a tie between the Spanish comedy Spy Time and the Cuban drama The Companion. We’ll leave you with the breakdown of the other winners, from the festival’s penultimate press release, summing up one of the most exciting festivals I have seen or been a part of since I’ve been attending in the mid-1990s.

KNIGHT COMPETITION, presented by The John S. & James L. Knight Foundation

Jury members Kyle Patrick Alvarez, Selton Mello and Trey Edward Shults selected the winners.

  • Knight Grand Jury Prize: Dheepan (France), produced by Pascal Caucheteux and Jacques Audiard
  • Grand Jury Award Best Performance: Zhao Tao in Mountains May Depart (China)
  • Grand Jury Award Best Director: Yorgos Lanthimos for The Lobster (Ireland/Greece)

KNIGHT DOCUMENTARY ACHIEVEMENT AWARD, presented by The John S. & James L. Knight Foundation

The Award winner was selected by the Festival audience.

  • Queen of Thursdays (USA), produced by Jorge Alvarez, Orlando Rojas and Dennis Scholl

LEXUS IBERO-AMERICAN FEATURE FILM COMPETITION

Jury members Carlos Lechuga,Leticia Tonos Paniagua and Kenny Riches selected the winning film.

  • Paulina (La patota) (Argentina), directed by Santiago Mitre

JORDAN ALEXANDER RESSLER SCREENWRITING AWARD

Jury members Rosa Bosch,Jorge Guerricaechevarria and Diego Lerman selected the winner. This special award recognizes and supports first-time produced screenwriters. Screenwriters from all feature films in the Festival that have a first-produced feature screenwriter credited, compete for a jury-selected cash prize of $5,000, courtesy of the family of the late Jordan Alexander Ressler.

  • Lorenzo Vigas for From Afar (Venezuela/Mexico)

Earlier in the week, four other major Festival awards were presented:

Shorts Competition

The latest in films 30 minutes or less from around the globe, the jury-selected winner received a $2,500 cash prize.

  • “The Man of My Life” (France) directed by Melanie Delloye

MIAMI ENCUENTROS presented by Knight Foundation

The winning project in post-production received the Achievement Award, which includes a $10,000 cash prize.

  • The Candidate (Uruguay), produced by Micaela Sole and Daniel Hendler

Miami Film 2016 presented by The Related Group

Three prizes were awarded to Argentine films in development.

  • Diego Lerman for A Sort of Family
  • Gonzalo Tobal for Dolores
  • Camilla Toker for The Death of Marga Maier

CINEMASLAM

Jury members Carla Forte, Giancarlo Loffredo and Alouishous San Gomma selected the winner in the Miami student film competition.

  • “I Want To Beat Up Clark Peters” by Joseph Picozzi (University of Miami’s School of Communications)

Hans Morgenstern

Except for the photos of Weiner director Josh Kriegman in conversation with Thom Powers, all images were provided by the Miami International Film Festival. The festival also provided tickets to all screenings.

(Copyright 2016 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)