From Cuba, a touching film that avoids ideology

While films from Europe are common on the international circuit, movies from Cuba are rare. Yet a few Cuban pictures have made the breakthrough -- including a recent entry called Portrait of Teresa, which is a winner in almost every way.

The main character is a woman caught by conflicting pressures of home, work, school, and outside interests. She is clearly a gifted and energetic person, but the different aspects of her life are crashing into each other like so many bumper cars. Rather than just give up and accept a more traditional female role , she determines to set her own course and carve out a style of living that's right for her.

It's a feminist fable, and a very humane one. Teresa is no crusader. All she wants are the opportunities any man would seek, including her own husband, whose personality is a lot weaker than hers. She has to make hard choices -- cutting loose from her spouse, for example, when she realizes his love is more sentimental than substantive. In the end, it's not certain how her life will develop, but we know it will be strong and productive, whatever comes to pass.

The film has been criticized in the United States for overlooking many political realities, presumably harsh, in Cuba under Castro. Yet its portrait of Cuba is no more rosy than its portrait of Teresa. Perhaps the attitude is best summed up by a minor character who says "Women will always be women, and men will always be men, and not even Fidel can change that."

At its best, this is a deeply involving study of profoundly human problems and personalities, transcending national and ideological boundaries. The director is Pastor Vega, a newcomer to fiction film, and the star is his wife, Daisy Granados, who also consulted on the script.

Turning to other climes, the best new film from France is I Sent a Letter to My Love, which features three of Europe's top stars in an ingenious and tender story. The original title is "Chere Inconnue" -- "Dear Stranger" -- which indicates the pen-pal plot.

Using an assumed name, an aging woman (Simone Signoret) advertises for a man to correspond with. The reply comes from her own brother, a lonely invalid who lives with her. Since he has no idea it's his sister on the other side of the mailbox, she keeps the correspondence going as a way of raising his spirits.

The plot gets farfetched when the sister hires an actress to have a one-time meeting with her curious correspondent. And the director, Moshe Mizrahi, moves the story at a slow and weary pace, with bouts of exaggeration and sentimentality. Still, the Signoret performance has enormous presence --Mizrahi also directed her in the Oscar-winning "Madame Rosa" -- and Delphine Seyrig is just right as her closest friend. Only Phillipe Noiret overplays at times in the tricky role of the handicapped brother. Though the parts don't quite add up to a satisfying whole, this is a drama of rare and delicate moments, moving to an exquisitely ambiguous conclusion. Too bad its languor cancels out much of its excitement.

I have more mixed feeling about Cocktail Molotov, a follow-up to "Peppermint Soda," also directed by Diane Kurys. Both are part of the endless stream of French films about youth and adolescence. While they distinguish themselves by including the political vehemence and turmoil of their period (the 1960s), they fail to generate memorable moments of story or character. In this respect the new entry is not superior to its predecessor, despite some solid performances, and a sense of social awareness underlying the ordinary plot about a young woman coming to terms with sex through an affair with an unexceptional young man.

And then there's La Cage aux folles II. I didn't even like the original "La Cage aux folles," which became a huge American hit despite its foolish story about a homosexual nightclub owner and a female impersonator. In the sequel, also directed by Edouard Molinaro, they're on the run from international spies, like a campy Abbott and Costello. The occasional moments of good slapstick and sharp wit do not make the trip worthwhile.

Nor is there much merit in the latest movie by another French director, Barbet Schroeder. The Valley is his oversexed "Lost Horizon," with a group of brooding hippies questing for a "lost paradise" in the jungles of New Guinea, and plenty of ponderous philosophizing along the way. Like other Schroeder pictures, it's a sort of docudrama, with fact and fiction mingling, plus calculated nods to "sexual freedom." And like those others, it's a dud. Even the music by Pink Floyd, that splendid group, sounds fragmented and out of place. Bulle Ogier plays the main role with some of her usual class, and the cinematography is by Nestor Almendros, who has done much better work.

The new Cafe Express comes from Italy, and stars the gifted Nino Manfredi. He plays an unlicensed coffee vendor on a long-distance train, eluding the authorities and trying to support his young son. Under the direction of Nanni Loy, some moments are extremely distasteful, others just silly. But now and again the film captures the kind of grim humor that was so effective in Italian comedies of the 1960s, particularly the Pietro Germi pictures. While this is no "Divorce Italian Style" or "Seduced and Abandoned," it has its moments, at least when it isn't sinking to banal snickers about the bathroom and the bedroom. And for all its failings, it makes the most of its main asset, the redoubtable Manfredi.

I can't say the same for Just a Gigolo, which wastes a prodigious amount of talent, including David Bowie, Marlene Dietrich, Maria Schell, Kim Novak, and even David Hemmings, who directed the thing, and plays a minor role. The story places Bowie, as a young ex-soldier, in decadent Berlin between the world wars, torn between various women, none of whom he wants anything to do with. The style swings between kitsch and camp, heightened and exaggerated with every visual and verbal device known to mankind. The story gets lost, as does much of the audience, I daresay. "Just a Gigolo" is just a waste of time.

There's far more dignity in the latest from West Germany, Black and White Like Day and Night. As the two-color title hints, the subject is chess. And the protagonist is a crazy chap who sees life in the win-or-lose terms of the chessboard.

Too bad, really, because he's a nice fellow until his mania lays him low. the movie, directed by Wolfgang Petersen, tells his story slowly and deliberately, sacrificing tension for mood. It's not a very exciting yarn, but then, chess is not exactly the No. 1 spectator sport, except for dedicated fans who enjoy gazing at the furrowed brows of their favorite champions. This movie should delight them mightily, while giving the rest of us a pleasant if minor diversion. Bruno Ganz stars, along with a who le lot of pawns and rooks.

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