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Foreign films: an alternative to the summer blockbusters

By David Sterritt / July 29, 1982

Though the summer blockbusters are drawing the most attention, from ''E.T.'' to ''Rocky III,'' they aren't the only choices for warm-weather moviegoers. A stream of foreign films is also flowing to American screens, providing varied alternatives to the latest big-budget fare from Hollywood.

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As often happens, France is in the lead, with a pair of major entries. The more modest of the two is also the more worthwhile: La Vie Continue, written and directed by Moshe Mizrahi, who is best known for his ''Madame Rosa'' of a few seasons ago.

''La Vie Continue'' might be called ''An Unmarried Frenchwoman.'' The main character is a mother approaching middle age, living contentedly with her family. When her husband suddenly passes on, she finds herself facing a set of brand-new problems - how to raise the children, cope with loneliness, and pay the bills on her own.

She's a strong person, fortunately, and she needs every bit of that strength to pull through this difficult period. At the end, many things are not entirely resolved. Still, we know she has grown to the point of not just survival, but new happiness. As the title says, ''life goes on.''

Yes, this is the stuff of many an earlier film, including the French ''A Man and a Woman,'' the German ''A Free Woman,'' and the American ''An Unmarried Woman.'' Mizrahi brings little new to the tale, but makes it sing - quietly, mildly - with his calm and unassuming treatment.

Add a deeply felt performance by Annie Girardot in the leading role, and you have a responsible addition to the small but growing collection of films about capable women who prove they can face life without a man around the house. ''La Vie Continue'' has been criticized for making things too easy for its heroine, who is surrounded by nice children, sympathetic friends, and even a lovable old boss. Yet her achievement is seen as very much her own, and Miss Girardot stresses her individuality at every opportunity. It's a thoughtful movie, if a minor one.

Since he burst on the American scene with ''A Man and a Woman'' in the mid-' 60s, Claude Lelouch has churned out movies at a vigorous pace. Though few have been worth looking at, many have found an international audience, and Lelouch's ambitions have grown apace. His latest export is three hours long, and it's reported that a version twice as long is waiting in the wings, if the ''short'' edition catches on. Here's hoping it doesn't.

The second French entry, Bolero, is based on the famous piece by Ravel - which even Ravel got tired of, incidentally, to the point where he wouldn't conduct it anymore. Like the composition, the film contains a few motifs which repeat over and over, with minor variations: Boy meets girl, girl marries boy, everyone faces hard times, and major historical events come into play. The characters, mostly unrelated to one another, are traced over several decades and continents. Their different stories are in counterpoint, weaving around and about one another like sinuous threads in the musical work that serves as the movie's model.

It sounds fascinating. And it would be, if the drama lived up to the structure. But the plots and subplots are unfailingly trite, except for a long and moving episode about Jews under Nazi attack, which achieves a desperate power by virtue of its subject alone. What is more, it's all photographed in the patented Lelouch manner, alternating between syrupy and gawky, and quite missing the electrical images of ''A Man and a Woman'' or the catchy visual riffs of ''Cat and Mouse.''

Lelouch begins it all with an excuse, noting (in a prologue) that the world of fiction is based on a handful of stories which are endlessly retold. True, but that's why the domain of the true artist must rest on imagination and invention. Ravel knew his ''Bolero'' was merely an enticing exercise. Lelouch seems to think his is a sweeping work of art. Sadly, it just isn't so. Hungarian films

Hungarian films are rare enough in the United States to merit extra attention when they do arrive. The latest is a mild comedy called The Witness, which satirizes Stalinist politics in Hungary during the 1950s. Made in 1969, it was withheld from the screen for nearly 10 years - presumably because of its controversial politics - and only made it to the West at last year's New York Film Festival. Now it has gone into commercial distribution, released by Libra Films in New York.