NEW YORK — AMERICANS don't go to foreign films as they once did. Some distributors and exhibitors still make non-English-language movies available on US screens, but the number of theaters is small and audiences are often meager. There are exceptions, of course, especially when a film from Western Europe or Japan has big stars, rave reviews, and perhaps an Academy Award nomination or two - the recent ``Camille Claudel,'' with Gerard Depardieu and Isabelle Adjani, is an example. Specialized organizations also try to make a dent in the problem. One is the International Film Circuit, a New York-based institution that circulates work by Chilean-born filmmaker Raul Ruiz and Israeli director Amos Gitai as well as Dutch movies (``NetherLandscapes'') and international programs called ``The Cutting Edge.''
Such activity helps raise awareness of worldwide film production among those moviegoers who attend museums, arts centers, and not-for-profit theaters. But are non-English-language pictures still viable on commercial screens, even when famous names and Oscar nominations don't appear on the marquee?
The arrival of a new Italian picture called ``The Icicle Thief'' raises this question once again. It has no big stars, no major auteur as director, no obvious ``selling point'' to help it compete with the summer sequels. On top of this, its story is a satire on classic Italian cinema of the great ``neorealist'' period some 40 years ago, which few of today's younger moviegoers have heard of.
On the plus side, ``The Icicle Thief'' has a list of prizes to its credit, including the Moscow filmfest's grand prize and the Chicago festival's best-actress award. (I saw it at last year's Toronto Festival of Festivals, where it was very well-received.) And the publicity announces that its director and star, Maurizio Nichetti, is called ``the Woody Allen of Italy'' back home. Will this be enough to sell tickets at US box offices? It's hard to predict, but I'm tempted to say that if any European comedy can be an American success story in 1990, this is certainly the one.
The title will sound slightly, weirdly familiar if you remember ``The Bicycle Thief,'' one of the great classics of Italian film. Made by Vittorio De Sica in 1948, it tells the simple story of a poor working man who searches the streets of Rome for his stolen bike, which he needs to keep his hard-won job and support his family. Still widely admired for its straightforward style and brilliant performances by nonprofessional actors, it ranks with the finest achievements of the Italian neorealist movement that flourished between 1945 and 1955, bringing a new and poetic sense of real-life drama to world cinema - and winning loud applause from international audiences, including Americans who flocked to neorealist films in large numbers.
So what do icicles have to do with this? ``The Icicle Thief'' is at once a spoof and a tribute, giving a comedy-style salute to ``The Bicycle Thief'' and neorealism. One of its heroes is a man who steals a chandelier (full of glass ornamentation that looks like icicles) as a present for his wife. Another of its heroes is a movie director who, within the story we're watching, makes a neorealist-type film about the chandelier thief. And if that's not complicated enough, the real action starts when a TV showing of the icicle-thief movie is interrupted by an electrical failure - whereupon the cast, the characters, the filmmakers, the TV viewers, and people from the TV commercials become hopelessly mixed up with one another.
Shades of Pirandello - or is it ``The Purple Rose of Cairo'' with an Italian twist, or a daffy exercise in postmodernism?
The person who knows is Mr. Nichetti, who made the film and plays the filmmaker (as well as the thief) and also co-wrote the picture. When he visited New York recently, I asked him where the idea for the movie came from, and he said it was the annoyance of watching great movies on TV, where commercials butt in so frequently that you can't tell where cinema leaves off and advertising begins. He gives this situation a marvelous ribbing in ``The Icicle Thief,'' but his mood always seems more amused than irritated at the idiosyncrasies of mass communication. And even the craziest moments of his movie are charged with affection for the classic Italian cinema that inspired his film-within-a-film-within-a-film.
``The Icicle Thief'' is not a great movie; it slides into vulgarity now and then, and seems very slight alongside memories of ``The Bicycle Thief'' itself. Nichetti's farce is always breezy and inventive, though, and his own performance couldn't be more charming.
I hope Americans warm to ``The Icicle Thief'' and show that Italian pictures can still generate widespread interest in US theaters. But whatever happens in the next few weeks, video stores and revival theaters will have a sure-fire double feature to sell in years to come: ``Bicicle'' and ``Icicle,'' back to back. What a plug for the varied pleasures of Italian cinema!