Silva and Ugarte at the premiere of The Opposite of Love at Madrid’s Callao Cinema last August.

A splatter film about zombies from Cuba; a flick about a May-to-December encounter in a locked bathroom from Spain; and an American movie about a wheelchair ballroom dance competition. This sampling of the more than 100 films from 35 countries on view at the Miami International Film Festival is proof enough of film director Susan Seidelman’s contention that the event celebrates “cultural diversity like no other.” “Some festivals, like the New York Film Festival, can be rarefied,” says Seidelman. “But Miami’s is not elitist; the audiences are up for anything.” The American director, who famously kick-started Madonna’s film career in Desperately Seeking Susan, should hope so. After all, the festival, now in its 29th year, will be the launch for her film Musical Chairs, about a Bronx Latino John Travolta type and a handicapped Manhattan Eastsider who find romance and redemption on the dance floor. The premise doesn’t exactly scream box-office boffo. But that’s just the way Jaie Laplante, the festival’s executive director, likes it. “I don’t think the program is safe or middle-of-the-road,” says the 42-year-old transplanted Canadian. “It’s challenging—at times disturbing—but always accessible.”

Indeed, there will be a number of luminaries on hand to host their films, including Shawn Ashmore of the X-Men series and Oscar nominee Adriana Barraza (Mariachi Gringo), Brazilian hunk Rodrigo Santoro (Heleno), Argentine superstar Ricardo Darín (Chinese Take-Away), Spain’s popular Hugo Silva (The Opposite of Love), and Robert Loggia (The Diary of Preston Plummer). Loggia, the veteran star of Scarface and Prizzi’s Honor, will be honored just before the world premiere of Preston Plummer, a made-in-Florida drama about young love, political chicanery and, of course, real estate.

This being Miami, the festival is also the gateway to Hispanic cinema, an all-important calling card to the American market. Pedro Almodóvar, the celebrated Oscar-winning director (Talk to Her), was known as little more than “the Spanish John Waters” when his 1983 film Dark Habits was screened at the festival. His glossy melodramas are now the most visible Hispanic products in the US. But, says Laplante, the new generation of Latino filmmakers have significantly “stepped up their game.” “They have become much more sophisticated and mature,” he says. The executive director notes that he’s chosen a cross-section of the best talent from that realm, such as veteran David Trueba of Spain, returning artist Alejandro Brugués of Cuba, and newcomer Javier Andrade of Ecuador.

Trueba returns to the festival with Madrid, 1987, about a couple (played by José Sacristán and María Valverde) emblematic of Spain’s political stumbles from autocracy to democracy to consumerism. As such, the movie’s gimlet-eyed look at a get-rich-quick society may well resonate in Miami, says the director, though he adds that the city’s reputation as “superficial” is not the entire picture. “That is why the festival is especially important,” he says. “You feel that the Miami audiences are seeking out a new approach, a new sensibility. They are much more open to that than the industry itself.”

Jiménez is looking to learn from those audiences when he screens his film Bonsái, a youthful love story about deception, desire, and stunted emotional growth. “You can discover things about your film that you didn’t know before,” he says. The filmmaker also hopes that he and his ilk can help to broaden perceptions of Latin American cinema beyond the prevalent stereotypes. While Brazil, Mexico, and Argentina have long been film powerhouses, other countries like his native Chile are now mounting a more concerted effort. “I love films that come from places that have nothing to do with my own experience.”

The Porcelain Horse from Ecuador would seem to fit that bill. Andrade says that he is both “scared and humbled” to be making his festival debut with this domestic drama about a family ripped apart by drugs and sibling self-destruction. Laplante has placed Andrade’s film not in the first-film category but in the festival’s signature Knight Ibero-American Competition, which carries a $30,000 purse. Andrade says that he is part of a generation that has been influenced by the American film culture of drugs and lost youth while still being authentically tied to the specific sensibility of his home country. Yet Miami, which he calls the “capital of Latin America,” tends to erase the cultural differences among the Latin filmmakers gathered at the festival. “There’s something about the melting pot that happens here that creates its own version of what Latin American culture is,” he says. “You are made so much more aware of what you have in common.”

That would seem to include the dominance of social over political concerns in the works, including Brugués’s Juan of the Dead. This zombie film has received international attention because of its enormous popularity in Havana, where it is set, and the fact that it has made it past the often-censorious Cuban government. Brugués, who lives in Havana, disavows the media’s efforts to draw political parallels between his story and what some consider soul-sapping totalitarianism—especially among Miami’s expat Cuban community. “It’s social commentary, not political,” says the filmmaker. He observes that Cubans deal with their problems in three ways: rolling with the punches, setting up a business to survive, or going into exile. “The crowd in Miami has already [made] the latter decision,” he says. “So I’ve been thinking a lot about how they will respond. I’ll just hope for the best.”

Which is exactly what his peers will be doing as the lights dim and the screen magic unfolds at what Laplante calls a festival most notable for the strong emotions it evokes. “You may love the films, you may not like them, but you’ll never be indifferent,” he says.

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