`Patty Hearst' looks back on a bizarre era. Pseudo-revolutionaries even fuel some humor

No movie generated more controversy at this year's Telluride Film Festival than ``Patty Hearst,'' the new picture directed by Paul Schrader from a Nicholas Kazan screenplay. Some people loved it, while others disagreed with it or positively disliked it. Mr. Schrader evidently didn't mind the disputes; his demeanor seemed cool and collected during his visit to the Rocky Mountains' most illustrious film event. Indeed, he evidently has mixed feelings of his own about the subject of the story. He told a Film Comment reporter at the Cannes Film Festival, where the picture was screened earlier, ``There wasn't much of a need for a Patty Hearst movie, which is why I made it as peculiar as it is.''

Now audiences can decide for themselves if ``Patty Hearst'' is too peculiar for comfort, or whether it's what I think it is - one of the most inventive American movies of the year and, in a dour kind of way, one of the funniest.

One reason that audiences are divided about this film, I think, is that people are still divided about Patty Hearst herself, and the bizarre experiences she had. And about the issues they raised: Did she become a criminal, or was she the victim of an insidious brainwashing scheme? Did she go to jail because she was guilty, or because the court system bent over backward to punish a woman who was perceived as a child of wealth and privilege?

Schrader's movie reprises the facts of the case in an engrossing manner that veers between Hollywood melodramatics and art-film stylishness. The daughter of a wealthy California family, she was kidnapped by self-styled ``urban guerrillas'' in 1974. They held her in a closet and subjected her to strong psychological pressures. She then apparently joined their ranks and took part in a bank robbery. Eventually she was arrested and convicted, despite her plea that she'd been brainwashed by her captors. She served time in prison before receiving a presidential pardon.

With regard to the villain-or-victim question, Schrader and Mr. Kazan lean toward the victim idea - portraying the captive Miss Hearst as a mere human being surrounded by weird fanatics who might drive anyone over the edge.

On another level, though, the filmmakers seem less interested in Hearst than in the time when her ordeal took place - a time when ridiculous, dimly educated weirdos really thought they were revolutionaries, and made society take them seriously by acting out their violent fantasies. Schrader paints a portrait of the so-called Symbionese Liberation Army that's at once funny, horrifying, and full of grotesque details about a dangerous and delusionary mind-set - from one man's inability to pronounce his ``revolutionary name'' properly to another's frustrated wish that he were black instead of white.

``Patty Hearst'' is far and away the best movie Schrader has directed, easily beating out ``American Gigolo'' and ``Mishima.'' It has some visually stunning sequences, including a bank-robbery scene presented entirely through expressive ``freeze frames'' that monumentalize the action even as it races before our eyes. The picture also has a solid cast, headed by Natasha Richardson in the challenging title role.

In the end, though, these cinematic assets and even Hearst's own position at the center of the story matter less than the film's powerful account of the events swirling around her. ``Patty Hearst'' isn't the story of one woman; it's the biography of an age - an age that's gone, at least for now, and may never return if we remember its lessons vividly enough.

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