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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Empty Nest

Argentina opens Latin-American series

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In a bad marriage, children can become the one common interest holding the couple together. And in a good marriage, children are usually the focus, an organizing principle of their parents' lives. When the children leave, some couples feel disoriented and play for time as they regain their direction. And some marriages run out of time once the kids are gone.

That could be the guiding theme of an intriguing film from Argentina, Empty Nest (El Nido Vacio). But director Daniel Burman smuggles other meanings into his story, including the sometimes-uncertain line between desire and reality and the concept of the author-artist as creator of his own world. Empty Nest screens at 7 p.m., April 17, at the UW-Milwaukee Union Theatre, the opening night of the 31st Annual Latin American Film Series. The festival, running through April 24, also includes films from Colombia, Cuba, Bolivia, Mexico, Brazil, Peru and Uruguay.

Empty Nestbegins at the dinner table of a fashionable restaurant, jazz in the background and conversation over expensive bottles of wine. The center of attention is the acclaimed playwright Leonardo, whose attention drifts to a beautiful dark-haired young woman at the next table. But no one notices as they heap him with questions about the autobiographical elements of his writing, least of all his wife, Martha.

When the happy couple returns home, Martha explains that their daughter is on a date with a young writer and won't be coming back this evening. Leonardo breaks form and waits up in his accustomed living room chair, pretending to write. In the film's first ellipsis, Martha returns home when morning comes-years later after the children have grown and gone. By then Martha is finishing the college degree she abandoned upon marriage and is the center of a new circle of friends. Leonardo is jealous and envious and becomes enchanted with a beautiful dark-haired young dental assistant. A psychologist he first encountered at the restaurant scene that opens Empty Nest warns of a form of memory loss in which fantasy is recalled as reality and reality fades away.

Witty, literate and handled with a light touch, Empty Nest is the sort of adult movie Hollywood has forgotten how to make as it investigates the bonds of affection, the reach of creativity and the obscure stirrings of the human heart.

When contrasted with Empty Nest, the U.S.-Mexican production Coyote shows the thematic and stylistic breadth of this year's Latin-American festival. Directed by Brian Petersen, it's a digital-camera indie movie about a glib young Yankee entrepreneur and his Mexican buddy who devise a get-rich-quick scheme to smuggle illegals across the Arizona border. As human trafficking goes, they run a benign operation, providing their clients with bottled water and even a modest gift basket upon reaching the United States.

But their thoughtless risk-taking will bring to mind Bear Stearns and AIG's financial unit. Signs of trouble are ignored. Mexican mobsters see the boutique smugglers as trespassers. Coyote also raises questions about the vast migration from Latin America to the United States spurred by lack of opportunity. It screens at 9 p.m. on April 19.