Gabriel García Márquez:

On Film and in Person

Sept. 11-14 at the American Film

Institute theater

Although he’s best known as the Nobel Prize-winning author of One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez did not study literature in college. Instead, he devoted himself to a practical profession, law, that he ultimately abandoned, and a childhood obsession, cinema, for which he is little appreciated, at least in this country. Still, García Márquez started his writing career as a Bogotá# film critic and has served as president of the Foundation for the New Latin American Film. Including those he has actually written, as well as scripts derived from his work, the novelist has credits on some 25 films. He even directed a film, The Blue Lobster, a half-hour 1954 short whose U.S. premiere he will introduce Thursday, Sept. 11, at 7:15 p.m. (the film also screens Friday at 6:30 p.m.; Saturday at 4 p.m.) at the American Film Institute.

This series also includes five features, three of them written or co-written by García Márquez and the other two adapted from his tales. Only one of them, Francesco Rosi’s 1986 Chronicle of a Death Foretold (Friday at 8:45 p.m.; Saturday at 2 p.m.; Sunday at 4:45 p.m.), is a treatment of one of the author’s prominent novels. The others are mostly drawn from García Márquez’s stories, a choice that reflects not only his understanding that long, complex novels frequently yield disappointing films but also his pragmatic approach to building an international Spanish-language cinema.

To that end, García Márquez worked on six scripts in 1986, creating a series known as “Difficult Loves.” The idea was to unify the fragmented Latin American film industry, enlisting collaborators from Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Mexico, and Venezuela—and taking the financing from Spanish TV. One of the films from this project, Miracle in Rome, is the only movie from the series that AFI was able to preview. (It will be screened on the same bill as The Blue Lobster.)

García Márquez has long lived in Mexico City, but much of his writing is rooted in his Colombian childhood. Miracle in Rome, which was directed and co-written by Lisandro Duque, finds the writer in familiar territory: a small provincial city in Colombia where the mundane and the mysterious dwell side by side.

Evelia Duarte is 7 years old when she silently, unexpectedly dies in the arms of her devoted father, Margarito (Frank Ramírez). Twelve years later, the local parish undertakes to build a new cemetery and unceremoniously dumps the bones of many of the old one’s inhabitants in a common grave. (The officiousness of the local religious authorities is but a hint of the bureaucratic unpleasantness to come.) Margarito pulls his daughter’s casket from her crypt only to find her body intact. The local residents call this a miracle; the bishop summoned to deal with the matter considers it an annoyance.

The Colombian government, however, wouldn’t mind having a national saint. They help send Margarito to Rome to argue for Evelia’s beatification and introduce him to Antonio, an aspiring Colombian opera singer, who provides the newcomer a place to stay. (It gradually becomes clear that, in the estimation of cosmopolitan Rome, both Margarito and Antonio are rubes who are out of their depth.) Both the Vatican and the Colombian Embassy insist that the girl’s possible sainthood is a political matter that must be handled through official channels. Margarito rejects this strategy, attempting to make his case on his own; he repeatedly visits the Vatican, carrying Evelia’s corpse in a large case.

Everyone except Margarito wants to see the girl reinterred, a course to which her father cannot be reconciled. Eventually Margarito realizes that Antonio is his only ally in Rome, yet his faith—or, more accurately, his love for his daughter—doesn’t falter. This sets the stage for two more miracles, one of them even more remarkable than the one that sent Margarito to Rome in the first place. “Love makes death brief,” explains the film’s epigraph, but this wry portrait of political and ecclesiastical officialdom suggests a less mystical moral: “Death is short; bureaucracy is long.”

Directors Jorge Alí Triana and Miguel Littin will appear to introduce the program’s three other films. Alí Triana directed A Time to Die, in which a man returns from a prison sentence for murder to find that his lover is no longer waiting for him, but the sons of his victim are (Saturday at 6:15 p.m.; Sunday at 2:50 p.m.), and Mayor Oedipus, a 1996 film that transplants Oedipus Rex to contemporary, civil-warring Colombia (Saturday at 8:30 p.m.; Sunday at 1 p.m.). Littin directed The Widow Montiel, in which a series of flashbacks reveals why a dead man’s funeral doesn’t draw a crowd (Sunday at 6:45 and 9 p.m.).

The tale of a kick-ass undercover EPA “marshal” who crushes toxic-waste dumpers in an impossibly backwoods section of Kentucky, Fire Down Below had to be silly. But surely it didn’t have to be as flat-out incoherent as director Felix Enriquez Alcalá, writers Jeb Stuart and Philip Morton, and overbearing co-producer/star Steven Seagal have made it. It’s a rare American movie that makes beating up a bunch of bad guys as confusing as this.

The film begins with agent Jack Taggart (Seagal) buzzing cliffs and waterfalls in his small plane, buffeted by duotoned flashbacks: Three feds, we’re informed, have died trying to get the goods on swaggering, upscale toxic dumper Orin Hanner (Kris Kristofferson), who doesn’t actually spend much time amid the abandoned coal mines of Kentucky. (He prefers the glittering high-rises and swinging casinos of some nearby metropolis—Knoxville, perhaps.) Rather than hit the area with a swaggering show of EPA force, the agency sends Taggart, who fools no one into thinking he’s a representative of the “Appalachian Relief Commission” there to do some free carpentry for the destitute.

Being small-minded backwoods types, most of the locals would just as soon kill Taggart as sell him the lumber to rebuild rotted porches and steps. Still, the agent forges alliances with Cotton (Harry Dean Stanton), a local oddball who’s not as dumb as he acts, and Sarah (Marg Helgenberger), a reclusive beekeeper who’s an outcast because she was charged with (albeit acquitted of) killing her father. Neither Cotton nor Sarah helps Taggart beat up bad guys, but then he doesn’t need any assistance. He’s such a loner that he probably doesn’t even return Joan Claybrook’s calls.

First-time director Alcalá and cinematographer Tom Houghton are TV veterans who once worked together on car commercials, which explains the evident effort they put into a sequence in which an assassin in an 18-wheeler tries to run Taggart off a mountain road. Since the outcome of that sequence is never in doubt, however, perhaps the filmmakers should have turned their attention to more pressing problems, notably the film’s acting and continuity.

After a slow-paced prelude in which Taggart casually overcomes pot growers, rattlesnakes, and Hanner’s goons, the agent turns his attention to cracking Sarah’s shell. (Taking a tip from John Travolta in Phenomenon, he buys all the honey she has consigned to the local grocery.) Over the objections of her obviously malevolent brother, Sarah falls for Taggart. Here’s where things get really sloppy: Concerned that Sarah is at risk in her remote house, Taggart delivers her to Witness Protection Program agents who turn out to be impostors. He promptly rescues her, only to take her back home and leave her there defenseless.

The final section of the movie is rushed and jumbled, as if even Alcalá and his editors had lost interest. There’s a series of battles that includes one in which Taggart bathes some bad guys in their own toxic waste—they don’t melt quite so photogenically as the Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark—and the EPA takes Hanner to court, where the gloating fiend is hit with a modest fine. Outside the courtroom, Taggart tells Hanner he’s quit the EPA so he won’t have to play by the rules anymore. Then, to the tune of “I’m a Man,” he busts up Hanner’s casino, flattens his bodyguards, shoots him in the shoulder, and promises him he’ll be raped regularly in prison. After all that, he announces that he hasn’t really quit the agency, after all. (What a ruse!)

Although scored mostly to blues songs, Fire Down Below includes a lot of pointless cameos by country musicians, including Levon Helm, Randy Travis, Marty Stuart, Travis Tritt, and Loretta Lynn’s twins, Patsy and Peggy. The film’s most striking aspect, however, is neither the music nor its possible role in redeeming the EPA from the pasting it took from the neo-con Ghostbusters; it’s the puritanism of a script that sees sex primarily as a means of torture. (Taggart thumps an incestuous brute just before he threatens Hanner with prison rape.) “Did you sleep with him?” Sarah’s brother asks her of Taggart. But they, of course, haven’t even kissed. As the parade of semiclad women who attend to Hanner indicates, in Steven Seagal’s universe only villains have sex.CP