Miami Film Festival — Final day treats

Fourteen films later and I still only scratched proverbial surface. As Miami Film Festival winds down I want to remind readers that they can catch Cargo and Embargo this afternoon for their second and final screenings. I’m also pleased that Harmonium, my pick for the Rene Rodriguez Critics Award, won on Friday.

Embargo
Director: Jeri Rice
Where and When: Regal 18 at 4 p.m.

Framed by the 2002 trip by director Jeri Rice as part of the Center for Women in Democracy, Embargo explains the bloody history between the United States and the island ninety miles from Key West that until November 2016 was ruled by America’s most persistent foreign gadfly. When the documentary follows the rise young lawyer Fidel Castro Ruz as the leader of the Moncada barracks raid and through his imprisonment, successful coup against Fulgencio Batista in 1959, and two-year honeymoon with the American press, it treads on familiar ground. Even the moth-eaten fiction that JFK opposed the national security state gets resurrected: although Robert Kennedy, Jr. says on camera regarding the Bay of Pigs farrago that his uncle “would not risk American lives for a CIA fantasy,” he ignores the CIA fantasy, egged on by his brother, named after a forager.

With the aid of smart talking heads like researcher Peter Kornbluth, Democratic Party operative Frank Mankiewicz, and chief of staff to Colin Powell and cable news fixture Lawrence Wilkerson, however, Embargo pieces together the extent of American culpability in this fifty-two-year psychodrama: the nexus of the Dulles brothers, Richard Nixon, and the mob; former CIA chief and future vice president and president George H.W. Bush’s protection of terrorist by any other name Luis Posada Carriles; and the Bush II administration’s bluster about nations that harbor terrorists while Carriles moved freely around South Florida exhibiting his paintings.

Imagine for a moment Embargo debuting at MFF in 1997 or even 2007. Every local news station and paper would have aired charges and counter charges by the Cuban exile community. Now I predict audiences will greet it with the respect it deserves. Although it gets soupy at the end — images of smiling Cuban faces and an appearance by, jeez, Ted Sorensen, a mummy treating the scripts he wrote for Kennedy like Montaigne did Aristotle — Embargo gains resonance at a fraught moment when liberals embrace the intelligence community as never before.

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The Unknown Girl
Directors: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes
Where and When: Regal 17 at 6 p.m.

Distinguishing a great film by the Belgian brothers (La Promesse, Rosetta, The Son, The Kid on the Bike) from the okay (Lorna’s Silence, Two Days One Night) and the one that splits the difference (L’Enfant) is fruitless. Their characteristic hand held camera work and over the shoulder and POV shots give urgency to their contemporary scenarios. The Unknown Girl is a landmark — an outright bore, the first in the Dardennes’ extraordinary career.

A bored Adèle Haenel plays Jenny Gavin, a general practitioner who with the help of her tapped out intern Julien has to deal with an emphysema and epileptic in the opening sequence. Hence her reluctance to admit a woman whom she doesn’t see but Julien does. Then she learns the woman, a twentysomething of possible Gabonese descent, is found dead by the side of the expressway. The key witnesses, including a teen, refuse to come forward. Jenny investigates the case herself, to the irritation of the police inspector (Ben Hamidou).

Dardenne regulars like Jérémie Renier offer relieved support in a film that doesn’t explain why Jenny is obsessed with the victim besides her own guilt, and Haenel’s performance is no relief. Accustomed to Dardenne scripts that are so tight as to be schematic, I was baffled why certain characters shared information with Jenny at either the right or wrong moments. Meanwhile The Unknown Girl’s most promising element hovers like an inconvenience: Olivier Bonnaud as Julien, with an expression as hostile as a fist, says the hell with medicine and returns to rural life, prompting a visit from Jenny that trembles with unspoken possibilities.

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Cargo
Director: Kareem J. Mortimer
Where and When: Regal 17 at 8:15 p.m.

It’s about time that a feature explored the politics of human smuggling; Cargo, however, also limns the realities with which citizens of a rapidly polarizing geo-economics climate must deal. The debut of Kareem J. Mortimer stars Occupation‘s Warren Brown as Kevin, an aging pretty boy and commercial fisherman in the Bahamas who did time for cocaine trafficking and can’t seem to put a foot right with his embittered wife Berniece (Persia White) and the child he claims to love. Desperate for cash to pay for his sick mother’s nurse and his kid’s tuition, he learns about the quick turnaround in picking up Haitians and Jamaicans.

But Cargo isn’t satisfied with white man problems. An affair with refugee Celianne (Gessica Geneus) uncorks the tension between the locals most of whom are black and menials, and scions of Bahamian gentry. Kevin’s son, after all, attends a private school run by whites. His maid lives in constant fear that Kevin or Berniece may take her papers and call immigration authorities on a whim. As the noose tightens around him, Kevin takes more risks, becoming ever more stupid and detestable; to Mortimer’s credit he doesn’t soften our reactions either. In the last twenty minutes — a sea voyage from the Bahamas back to Haiti — the cheapness of human life has rarely been shown so mercilessly in modern cinema.

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