MIAMI — It's rarely asked why a place like Miami needs a film festival. This city is already a midwinter magnet with its glistening sea, blue skies, and swaying palms. Why would people leave the great outdoors to spend their hours in long, dark rooms with movie screens instead of windows?
One answer is the fine selection of movies regularly served up by the internationally respected Miami Film Festival. Another is its strategic timing during the midwinter blahs that invariably strike multiplexes after the holiday season.
In the lackluster weeks between New Year's Eve and Memorial Day, moviegoers pin their hopes on the fresh material that springtime usually brings. What better place to anticipate the warm-weather revival, and sample its offerings, than the sunniest February film fest around?
Since festival chief Nat Chediak combs the world to assemble his programs, putting special emphasis on Spanish-language movies with strong appeal for this region's large Latin population, the worthwhile pictures here range far beyond standard American productions. And so does the Academy Award race, where Carlos Saura's spicy Tango is a strong candidate for best foreign-language film. It was the opening-night attraction here, delighting audiences who have followed Saura's many American releases over the past 25 years.
Works by top-ranking filmmakers also played in other key positions: Bernardo Bertolucci's goofily romantic drama Besieged was the closing-night screening, and Wim Wenders's toe-tapping Buena Vista Social Club, a lively spinoff from Ry Cooder's popular album of Cuban music, filled the "centerpiece" slot.
These new offerings by celebrated artists made a splendid counterweight to the large number of international entries by first-time filmmakers, ranging in age from 17 to 49. This reflects Chediak's respect for "cross-cultural fertilization" and his conviction that "striking a balance" - between old and new, foreign and domestic, entertaining and challenging - is a worthy goal for festivals and moviegoers alike.
It also demonstrates the current health of world cinema, which is generating a large roster of promising new talents while sustaining the careers of masters like Bertolucci and Saura.
Among the crowd-pleasers unveiled here, a French drama called The Dreamlife of Angels stands out. Already acclaimed at the Cannes Film Festival, where its stars shared the best-actress award, and opening in US theaters today, it centers on two young women who become roommates in an effort to lighten their burdens. Their experiences include much hardship and sorrow, but the movie conveys the richness of their inner selves while avoiding the twin traps of exploitation and sentimentality that dramas about working-class people often fall into.
Set in 1969 and pitched as a date movie for the baby-boom set, A Walk on the Moon stars Diane Lane and Anna Paquin as a mother and daughter who both grow romantically restless during a summer vacation at a Jewish bungalow colony. In his directorial debut, actor Tony Goldwyn gives a good-natured ethnic spin to themes from pictures like "The Horse Whisperer" and "The Bridges of Madison County" while developing crisply drawn characters and affirming the value of family bonds.
Moviegoers who enjoyed "Sliding Doors" may flock to Twice Upon a Yesterday, about a love-struck actor who finds himself hopping backward and forward in time as he tries to sort out his relationships with two very different women. As in "Sliding Doors," the fantasy framework often seems more interesting than the details of the story, but spirited performances help make it entertaining.
There's also a fantasy dimension to producer Jeremy Thomas's first film as a director, All the Little Animals, which he calls a "fairy tale" even though much of its action is firmly planted in the English countryside. The hero is a troubled young man who runs away from his wicked stepfather and becomes the protg of a mysterious stranger who believes life is no less precious in the animal kingdom than in human society. John Hurt is touchingly real as the hermit, and the story develops much atmospheric charm before trading in its homely pleasures for melodramatic twists.
A different part of Europe figures in two new Yugoslavian pictures. Emir Kusturica's boisterous Black Cat, White Cat explores the roguish side of human nature via the darkly comic tale of an arranged marriage, while Goran Paskaljevic's harrowing The Powder Keg exposes the evil that can tempt humanity when wartime conditions stretch normal values beyond their breaking point. Neither is a great film, but each reveals much about the varied world views found in the currently tormented Balkan region.
Other offerings ranged from the social realism of Samira Makhmalbaf's docudrama The Apple, already arriving in theaters, to the wry comedy of Get Real, a British look at growing up gay. All had their main festival screenings in Miami's elegant Gusman Center for the Performing Arts, where film-industry professionals and everyday moviegoers rubbed elbows in an enthusiastic atmosphere of enjoyment, amusement, and debate. It's hard to imagine a better way of realizing the festival's slogan: "For the love of film."
* David Sterritt's e-mail address is email@example.com