NEW YORK — SOVIET films are on the march. ``Forgotten Tune for a Flute'' opened recently in the United States, and now ``Little Vera'' has arrived - hot on the heels of ``Commissar'' and ``Repentance,'' two pictures from the late 1960s that had belated US premi`eres not long ago. It's not exactly a flood, but it's more Soviet movies than American screens have seen for many years within such a short time span. What's behind the phenomenon? According to Christopher Wood, a film importer based in New York, the Soviet policies of glasnost and perestroika - openness and restructuring - have been ``a wonderful thing'' for Soviet cinema. ``There's a greater interest under Gorbachev's regime to increase business with the Western world,'' he says. ``The desire of the Soviet film industry is to become a very important international industry.''
Nor is this a momentary blip. ``It's definitely going to continue,'' says Mr. Wood, who has gazed at many Soviet productions in the course of choosing films like ``Little Vera'' and ``Commissar'' for distribution by the International Film Exchange, the company with which he's affiliated. ``We see changes not only in the films themselves but in their marketing concepts, the way they promote the films [with] posters, full-color catalogs, sound-track albums. ... Everybody's carrying this new philosophy!''
The ``philosophy'' extends to subject matter as well as business practices. ``The subjects are being expanded,'' says Wood. ``They're able to take on almost any topic. Films are even becoming critical of political thought. ... It's a whole new game. ... And the exploration of new themes - the freedom they now have to talk about anything - opens new ideas and new frontiers for them.''
The latest Soviet film in American theaters is ``Little Vera,'' which first tested the US waters (in a slightly longer version) at New York's prestigious New Directors/New Films and at the Telluride Film Festival in the Colorado mountains. It's already a hit in the Soviet Union, where it sold a record-breaking 50 million tickets in its first three months. While it probably won't repeat that enormous success in the US, it's an unusual picture worth attention by American moviegoers with cosmopolitan tastes.
A couple of factors account for the picture's popularity in its native country. The least exalted one is a particular scene - a sex scene, involving the main character, that's unlike anything else in Soviet film history. Soviet filmmakers have always been discreet about sex, which may play a part in their stories but normally stays off-screen.
As explicit as it is, the love-making scene in ``Little Vera'' isn't outrageous by current American standards; it would probably earn a commonplace ``R'' rating. But it's far more candid than anything the Soviets have released before, and it's not surprising that Soviet audiences have been curious about it.
The other reason for the movie's popularity is more interesting: It has the audacity to explore the inner unhappiness and discontent that apparently afflict a good number of Soviet teen-agers. Americans are used to movies that show, and sympathize with, adolescent characters who don't get along with their parents, their school, or even their whole society. A classic example is ``Rebel Without a Cause,'' the James Dean drama; a current example is ``Heathers,'' the morbid new comedy about incredibly cynical high-schoolers.
Soviet films have rarely gone out of their way to paint the dark side of life in the USSR, however, and - with some exceptions, such as ``Burglar,'' which also played the US recently - they certainly haven't made a point of showing youngsters as depressed about their families and alienated from their culture.
``Little Vera'' does just that. And it must be drawing an accurate picture, or audiences would presumably be ignoring it. On top of that, ``Little Vera'' harshly criticizes the family and the society it shows. The heroine has every reason to be depressed - with a mean and alcoholic father, a mother who's little help, and a town to live in that's not exactly jumping with constructive opportunities for young folks. Add up these elements, and you have a portrait of working-class life that's as direct and critical as anything you'd find in a Hollywood movie.
``Little Vera'' is also a well-made film. The director, Vassily Pitchul, keeps the action vivid and engrossing most of the time, and Natalya Negoda gives a thoroughly convincing performance as the main character. In all, ``Little Vera'' offers strong evidence that glasnost is paying hefty creative dividends.
That new Soviet films are benefiting from recent developments was seconded in a conversation I had recently with Tatiana Dogileva, star of ``Forgotten Tune for a Flute'' and a veteran of many Moscow-based stage and screen productions. ``Five years ago,'' she told me, ``official newspapers and magazines said we had no problems at all in the Soviet Union - that the Soviet people were the happiest people, and our families were the strongest in the world. But we see that we have a lot of problems....
``Cinema and theater are one of the most important parts of glasnost and perestroika,'' she continued, ``because they tell people about our problems. And people now want to hear about our problems. Now our film and theater directors can speak about this. ... And that is beautiful, although it is also hard work!''