Partly by default, Costa-Gavras is the world's leading political filmmaker. His style can be slick and calculated, but he has the nerve to tackle complex and controversial subjects that would scare most directors away. Such hits as ''Z'' and the recent ''Missing'' show his skill at probing hard issues in a popular context.
His new drama, Hanna K., plunges again into delicate territory. The heroine (Jill Clayburgh) is an American transplanted to Israel, where she has become a lawyer. Though not a crusader, she takes on the defense of a young Arab charged with sneaking repeatedly into Israeli territory. The authorities say he's a terrorist. He claims he only wants to return to his native home, which has been confiscated by the government.
It's a snarled situation, and the lawyer's personal life is even more so. She is pregnant by her former lover, the district attorney who's now prosecuting the case she's working on. Also on the scene is her husband, a soft-spoken Frenchman she's long been separated from and who wants only to help her.
The film thus has three layers of story and meaning, based on three aspects - personal, professional, and political - of Hanna K.'s life. They become more intertwined as they develop, especially after Hanna's baby is born. Indeed, the baby becomes a living symbol of tangled Mideast relations: Its biological father is Israeli, its legal father is European, and the man who actually cares for it is the Palestinian whom Hanna defends in court. (The infant's Jewishness is underlined, however, by the clinical portrayal of its ceremonial circumcision.)
In a conversation the other day, Costa-Gavras told me he began ''Hanna K.'' with the idea of exploring Middle East issues, then got sidetracked by the subject of female independence. Only later did he get the notion of combining both subjects into one movie, which may explain why the story seems contrived at times.
The filmmaker also said he considers the personal dimension of the plot - Hanna's struggle to find her own identity as a woman, a lawyer, and a citizen - just as important as the legal and international issues that loom over the picture. This concern for basic human values is admirable, but Costa-Gavras might have served it better in a movie of its own. For all its good intentions, ''Hanna K.'' can't seem to decide whether it's a sweeping political allegory or an intimate romantic fable. Ultimately, it becomes a new genre I'm not sure we need: history as soap opera.
As a production, ''Hanna K.'' is less accomplished than ''Missing,'' the previous Costa-Gavras film. Jill Clayburgh brings more sincerity than subtlety to the title role, though she has a few telling scenes. The supporting cast is doggedly international, which adds color to the show, but gets distracting at times. The screenplay by Franco Solinas and photography by Ricardo Aronovich are adequate. The picture was shot largely on location in Israel, where - according to producer Michele Ray-Gavras - the authorities were thoroughly cooperative with the project. College reunion
In a bit of witty titling, Lawrence Kasdan has followed his suspenseful ''Body Heat'' with a moody comedy called The Big Chill. And a chilly picture it is, despite its drift toward vulnerable characters and humorous dialogue.
The story focuses on an unexpected reunion of several not-so-old grads who haven't seen each other since college. Survivors of the '60s, they've turned into ordinary people, their days of idealism and rebellion just a memory. But bygone romances and rivalries begin to stir, churning up enough pathos and irony for 103 minutes of reasonably diverting dialogue.
What makes ''The Big Chill'' more than a mini-''Grand Hotel'' or slicked-up ''Return of the Secaucus Seven'' is the boldness (some might say rashness) of its main metaphor: the funeral of an old friend who has committed suicide. We never see the late Alex, but we get to know him through the anecdotes of the other characters as they mourn and remember him, and he becomes a paradigm of the '60s themselves - rootless, dissatisfied, full of promise, sewn with seeds of self-destruction. Though he never shows up, even in a flashback, he's the guiding force behind the movie, lending an extra touch of meaning to all but the most frivolous moments.
As director and co-writer (with Barbara Benedek) of the film, Mr. Kasdan is at his best in the goofy, unguarded scenes that pepper the action. He has a gift for thinking up eccentric one-liners, and positively shines when guiding a natural comic like Jeff Goldblum through a string of terrifically off-beat, unpredictable moments.
He's less effective with serious issues and delicate situations. Mary Kay Place is a wonderfully appealing actress, for example, and it's good to see her in a major movie role; but Kasdan never quite fathoms the slightly skewed facets of her character, a woman who's determined to get pregnant as quickly and anonymously as possible. It's not even clear whether the director-writer understands (or cares about) the moral issues involved, as plenty of audience members surely will. (The picture's rating is R, reflecting this subplot and some vulgar language.)
For the rest, ''The Big Chill'' alternates between clever and contrived, the performances often determining whether a scene will work or not. Kevin Kline is sharp and smooth as the reunion's host, a businessman who's mildly surprised at his own success. Other standouts are JoBeth Williams as a woman frustrated with her marriage and Tom Berenger as the famous one of the group, a second-rate actor getting rich from a third-rate TV series. Meg Tilly also shines, playing Alex's addled girlfriend.
Others on hand are Glenn Close, nicely soft-spoken but too determinedly ''sensitive'' as one of the smarter members of the crew, and William Hurt, seeming ill at ease in his peculiar role as the only person who still seems mired in the most irresponsible excesses of the '60s.
It's hard to say how ''The Big Chill'' will fare with audiences. Its moods are too ambiguous and its talk too slippery, I think, for the kind of broad success ''Body Heat'' racked up. But when its rhythms go slack, there's usually a burst of vintage '60s music to cover the lapse, and some of Kasdan's images are stunningly inventive. Its premiere took place last week at opening night of the New York Film Festival, and critical reaction was mixed. For the moment, its future is anybody's guess.