The key shots of ''Country'' are an icy white. The land is caught in the chill of winter, as fields freeze and farms batten down for the season. And the people are caught in a chill of the spirit - their sense of compassion and community losing a race with more ''modern'' values like efficiency and bankability.
The main characters are an Iowa farming family. Poor harvests and weak prices have forced them into debt, and the days are gone when family stability and hard work were the best collateral for another needed loan. Government agencies and local banks now go by regulations, not feelings, and care more about numbers than people.
True, such policies could mean the end of family farming, as small operations tumble like dominoes into foreclosure. But the money people say it's the wave of the future, and what tradition can stand up to the figures on a computer?
''Country'' takes this plight - as real and urgent as many a recent headline - and humanizes it. The economics of the '80s aren't discussed in dry conversations, they're embodied by carefully drawn characters and summarized in crisp images. The result is sentimental in mood but realistic in message, and it's as dramatically absorbing as any Hollywood picture in months. The movie, financed by Walt Disney Productions for its new Touchstone subsidiary, opened the New York Film Festival last week (a rare accolade for Disney from the ''art film'' scene) and has now started its national release. The rating is PG, reflecting a few vulgar moments.
Richard Pearce, the director of ''Country,'' is an experienced documentary-maker, whose credits also include the scrupulously crafted western ''Heartland'' a few years ago. Like that modest and memorable film, ''Country'' fuses a fictional story with penetrating shots of an environment that shapes every personality and event; and it focuses on a strong and independent woman as the driving force behind the action.
The most compelling images are sometimes sad, as when a wife augurs her family's future with a pocket calculator on a kitchen table; and sometimes amusing, as when a teen-ager milks cows while rock music pours through earphones on his head. At times the director forces our emotions with shots more flashy and incidents more aggressive than these - one scene could have been lifted from a populist Frank Capra epic of the '40s - but even when melodrama crowds out subtlety, the sincerity and goodwill of the story are unquestionable.
Among the cast members, Jessica Lange gives the film its solid core as a farm woman who refuses to accept what seems obvious or inevitable. Sam Shepard, in one of his most fully realized performances, plays her weak but well-meaning husband. Levi L. Knebel, a local boy discovered near the film's Iowa location, is just right as their confused teen-age son. Wilford Brimley is his usual folksy self as the family's grandpa. The smaller roles are skillfully handled.
''Country'' began as a personal project for Jessica Lange, who produced the picture (with screenwriter William D. Wittliff) in addition to playing the heroine. Her empathy with embattled small-scale farmers is clear in scene after scene, as is her rapport with director Pearce and her fellow performers. ''Country'' is a cautious movie, as conservative in its style as in its celebration of family and community values. But its seriousness is commendable, and its political commitment is enormously refreshing at a time when films generally value escape over engagement. A strange but brilliant movie
''Stranger Than Paradise'' is stranger than most movies. The characters are few, the settings bleak, the situations often absurd. Yet just below this unlikely surface there's a rich trove of visual imagination and storytelling wit. In its own weird way, this dark comedy by Jim Jarmusch is among the very best American movies of the year.
The main character is Willie, who lives in a dingy Manhattan apartment and spends most of his time watching television. His friend Eddie goes with him to the race track and helps him cheat at poker games. Into their lives comes Willie's cousin from Hungary, a waiflike teen-ager named Eva who is on her way to a new life in Cleveland.
The first 30 minutes, subtitled ''The New World,'' show Eva's introduction to American ways. Willie and Eddie are terrible hosts, of course, but since her own style of living is just as dim and limited as theirs, the trio soon gets along just fine. The second half-hour follows them to Ohio, where they remain as oblivious as ever in their new surroundings. The last portion, called ''Paradise ,'' takes place in Florida, which turns out to be no more inviting than the pavements of New York or the blinding blizzards of the Midwest. The finale is an unexpected joke on everyone in the movie.
To appreciate ''Stranger Than Paradise'' you have to get into its slow, spare rhythm. Each scene is photographed in a single shot - there are no close-ups, no cuts from one view to another - and each bit of action is separated from the next by a brief blackout. By concentrating all attention exactly where the filmmaker wants it, this stripped-down style amplifies the smallest nuances of gesture and setting, turning outrageously underplayed scenes into small monuments of subtle hilarity. The effect is boosted further by Tom Dicillo's lean black-and-white cinematography.
And the performances are extraordinary, given the oddball nature of the project. John Lurie, a member of the Lounge Lizards rock group, gives Willie a lanky charm that slowly creeps up on you. Richard Edson, a member of sundry rock groups including the noisy Sonic Youth, gives Eddie the right amount of restless amiability after pushing the role a bit too much at first. The pivotal part of Eva is played to blank-faced perfection by Eszter Balint, a member of the iconoclastic Squat Theater.
Smaller roles are played by producer and production manager Sara Driver and an offbeat performer named Rammellzee, among others. And in a special treat for lovers of '50s music, the sound track features generous excerpts from the classic ''I Put a Spell on You,'' by the great Screamin' Jay Hawkins. Who could ask for more?