The Amelie-Phenomenon

in 20th Miami International Film Festival

by Bence Nánay

One third of the fifteen films in the Dramatic Feature competition at the Miami International Film Festival were from Latin America. One could think that this strong presence of ‘Iberoamerican’ cinema has more to do with the fact that the majority of the population of Miami is Spanish-speaking than with the actual quality of these films. In the ‘capital of the Caribbean’ a successful film festival is obliged to cater for the taste of the Cuban, Argentinean and other Latin American communities.

This may have been part of the reason for choosing five films from Latin America, but, as it turned out, the most interesting and innovative films in the competition were among them. We are now used to the fact that contemporary Iranian cinema shows more continuity with the golden age of European cinema than recent Italian or French movies do. The selection at the Miami festival suggests that the same may be true of contemporary Latin American cinema. I will focus on two Iberoamerican films that were the most experimental, formally most unconventional films in the competition: “Nada Mas” (directed by Juan Carlos Cremata Malberti) and “Caja Nega” (directed by Luis Ortega). The former won the Grand Jury Prize, whereas the latter won the Grand Jury Prize for the best Iberoamerican film.

The most striking similarity between these two films is that both use what I call ‘Amelie-narrative’: a young and beautiful woman spends all her time helping others (her family and/or strangers) and trying to make them happy, while being deeply unhappy herself. Some critics dismiss this narrative as simply unrealistic: young and beautiful women would pursue their careers and happiness and not give a damn about other people. This criticism came up quite often in the case of the original film “Amelie” and it will undoubtedly return as an argument against the two films mentioned above.

Two things can be said to answer this criticism. First, it is certainly true that such a narrative would probably be unbearable in a film that is otherwise realist in style: it would indeed come across as the weakness of the plot. Yet these ‘Amelie’-like films do not try to be realist in style; hence, accusing them of using non-realistic plot lines makes as little sense as accusing Picasso of drawing two noses for one woman or accusing Antonioni of not making his characters talk enough.

Second, if these films are not realist in style, that is not just an excuse. The use of such a fairy tale-like, easy to follow narrative gives these films room for experimentation with form. This narrative leaves the motivations of the main character almost entirely inaccessible to the audience. By using this narrative, these films declare not to care about psychological motivations and focus on something else: on the form of the film.

The greatest danger for films using the ‘Amelie-narrative’ is sentimentality – another recurrent criticism of the movie “Amelie”. Without dwelling on whether “Amelie” is sentimental or not, I now turn to “Nada Mas” and “Caja Negra”, which try to avoid sentimentality in two radically different ways.

“Nada Mas” is a farce. A very lonely woman at a post office in La Habana opens a few letters that go through her hand and sends much nicer letters in their stead. A typical ‘Amelie-narrative’, but told in a completely different style. Full of visual gags and exaggerated characters, the style of the film could be compared to Louis Malle’s “Viva Maria” and “Zazie dans le Metro” or the early films by Chytilova. The director also uses various classical slapstick scenes. The reason why these effects are utilized is without doubt to counterbalance the sentimentality of the film. And there is need for it, since the film surprises the audience with a happy ending similar to that of “Amelie”: after so much effort to make other people happy, the heroine finally finds happiness herself.

In “Caja Negra”, there are no gags and there is no happy ending. Nevertheless, very few films are less sentimental than this Argentinean piece. The main character shares her time between spending time with her father and her grandmother. She utters three or four sentences during the film, but her presence on the screen is very intense, especially when she is with one of the two people she is taking care of. These moments make one think of Antonioni: two people sitting next to one another without saying a word, yet one feels the weight of what is not said.

What makes “Caja Negra” a remarkable film is the fact that the heroine does not make the life of those around her better or easier in any visible ways. Her father finds it difficult to talk to her and her grandmother often quarrels with her, which does not affect her much; the only thing that makes her cry is when the grandmother repeatedly asks her about her boyfriend in spite of her repeatedly answering that she does not have any. This is the only clue we get about the unhappiness of the otherwise absolutely opaque heroine. And of course there is no happy ending. Nothing changes: the heroine goes on living unhappily and so does the rest of the family. An ‘Amelie-narrative’ turned upside-down.

Bence Nanay