NEW YORK — THERE'S always a strong international flavor to the New Directors/New Films Festival at the Museum of Modern Art, and this year has been no exception. American movies also made a strong showing on last year's program, though, and some of them will be on theatrical screens in the near future - hoping to follow in the footsteps of such past New Directors winners as Steven Spielberg's "Sugarland Express" and Whit Stillman's recent "Metropolitan," which helped earn major reputations for their makers. The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, based on Carson McCullers's superb novella about life and love in the rural South, is the sort of film that benefits greatly from having its American premi 143&gt;re at a festival with high standards. Bold, unconventional, and strikingly imaginative, it calls for a thoughtful audience in an adventurous mood - and rewards that audience with rich visual and storytelling dividends.
Set in a sleepy Southern town, the drama focuses on a fiercely individualistic woman who lives entirely on her own terms, supporting herself with earnings from an illicit "still" she owns and operates. Her life is lonely but contented until two men barge unexpectedly into it: a rejected husband she wants nothing to do with, and an odd-looking stranger who claims to be a long-lost relative and gradually becomes both her strongest ally and most ferocious enemy.
The movie was directed by actor Simon Callow in his first turn behind the camera. It's presented by Merchant Ivory Productions, one of current cinema's most valuable and independent-minded resources. Mr. Callow has developed a productive relationship with them in recent years - playing small but memorable roles in such movies as "Maurice" and "A Room With a View" as well as "Mr. & Mrs. Bridge."
Callow calls the original "Ballad of the Sad Cafe" the "most extreme experiment" of McCullers's career, and while I don't quite agree with this - the moody "Reflections in a Golden Eye" edges it out, in my opinion - there's no question that it took courage as well as skill to turn this dark-hued moral and emotional fable into a film that's both accessible and reasonably true to McCullers's vision. At its best, as when the eccentric heroine stalks through a muddy river on her way to the private rituals o f her still, it contains imagery of uncommon power. And its acting is first-class: Keith Carradine has a perfect blend of menace and uneasy charm as the unwanted husband; Cork Hubbert is astonishingly good as the strange cousin; and Vanessa Redgrave gives what may be the performance of her career in the leading role. (The only noteworthy flaw is her Southern accent, which - as in her Broadway performance in "Orpheus Descending" recently - seems to have an Eastern European ring at times!)
Innovation is often a hallmark of New Directors films, and many entries in this year's lineup were characterized by the festival as showing "narrative experimentation and energy" of a type recalling the explosive modernism of the 1960s. A movie with more than of its share of those qualities is Slacker, directed by Richard Linklater, a new Texas filmmaker. It starts with a monologue spoken by a young man on a bus, so strange and strung-out that you wonder what kind of movie you're in for. Then the man ge ts off the bus, the camera gets off with him - and we never see him again, as the film switches its attention to a new character, who also disappears from sight after a few minutes. And so it goes, with the storyline (such as it is) forever handed from one protagonist to another, in a kind of cinematic relay race.
Is this fascinating, irritating, or just plain confusing? That depends on your tolerance for experimentation, but I found it exhilarating much of the time, especially when Mr. Linklater uses subtle changes in visual style to signal different attitudes toward some of the incredibly diverse characters we meet. There's nothing more amusing, original, or (sometimes) outrageous on the current movie scene.
As always in the New Directors festival, non-American films were varied and abundant this year, and a number of them will make their way to theaters in weeks and months to come. An important French entry, The Captive of the Desert, seems guaranteed to raise controversy among even cinematically sophisticated audiences. The story, based on a real incident, centers on a European woman held prisoner in the western Sahara by African rebels. What makes the film unique is director Raymond Depardon's extraordin ary visual style: The film unfolds in long, static shots that echo the gradual, unchanging rhythms of the desert itself. Some find it infuriating. To my eye it's bewitching and dazzlingly beautiful.
New Directors prides itself on discovering worthwhile films from unexpected parts of the world, and Child of the Terraces is one of the rare Tunisian films to reach American audiences. A coproduction of Tunisia and France, it chronicles a young boy's sexual and social coming-of-age without quite enough originality to lift it above other films that have been made on the same subject around the world. Its portrait of Tunisian life is remarkably vivid, however, and it marks director F 142&gt;rid Boughedir as a substantial filmmaking talent.
Other films on the program ranged from Andrei Zagdansky's artful Soviet documentary Interpretation of Dreams, which accompanies Russian historical footage with Sigmund Freud's once-banned words, to Irena Pavlaskova's Czechoslovakian drama Time of the Servants, which brings in more social and political angles than it can handle and thus dilutes a compelling story of a lonely woman's rise to misplaced confidence and misused power.
Films from Switzerland, Peru, Mexico, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Hungary, Denmark, the Faroe Islands, and elsewhere rounded out the festival, sponsored (as always) by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the museum.