MEXICO CITY, MEXICOless than 24 hours after the Oscars capped the remarkable year of the so-called "three amigos," I boarded a plane bound for the Mexico City International Contemporary Film Festival (February 21March 4) and am now happy to report that film culture is alive and well south of the borderdespite the recent assessment of Variety editor Peter Bart that the country's top filmmaking talent is fleeing to Hollywood for fear of kidnapping. What's more, this fest displays the sort of appetite for demanding works of cinema that one finds in increasingly short supply.
This year, the FICCO (the acronym for the festival's Spanish-language title) 300-page catalog alone is something like pornography for cinephiles, with many of those pages devoted to festival retrospectives of Robert Bresson, Portuguese director Pedro Costa (whose Colossal Youth has been the cause célébre of the festival circuit for most of the past year), and the legendary American experimental filmmaker James Benning.
Lest I make the FICCO sound like an orgy of obscuria: There is plenty in the program of the crowd-pleasing variety, including the local premiere of Paul Verhoeven's Black Book. Among new work debuting here is Kieran Fitzgerald's The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández, which recounts in chilling, unsentimental detail the 1997 shooting death of the eponymous Mexican-American high-school student by a U.S. Marine border patrol in Redford, Texas. Something of a companion piece to Tommy Lee Jones's The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Fitzgerald's film offers an urgent contribution to the raging debate over the physical and psychological divides separating the U.S. from its neighbor to the south.
In its fourth year, the FICCO is not without its hang-ups. One afternoon I watched half of Jean-Marie Straub and Daniéle Huillet's Sicilia! projected through the wrong lens (causing either the actors' heads or the English subtitles to be cut off at all times) before finally giving up. The young festival staff tends to respond with a shrug and a smile as if to say, "Welcome to Mexico." Yet even with such bumps, the FICCO is an embarrassment of riches at a time when so many film festivals are merely embarrassments.
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