NEW YORK — `JOURNEY of Hope'' is newsworthy for at least two reasons. One is that it garnered the Academy Award for best foreign-language film of 1990. That surprised many moviegoers since this modest Swiss production was the only contender that hadn't yet played in American theaters. The other reason is that ``Journey of Hope'' deals vividly and poignantly with the plight of refugees, who seek not only hope but ultimately life itself by making their way into a neighboring country. The travelers in the film are Turkish Kurds on a difficult and dangerous voyage to Switzerland, where they expect to find a more dignified and prosperous existence. Although they are a family whose emigration is prompted more by economic than political reasons, and although the film was made before the Gul f war, there is an inescapable parallel between their experiences and those of today's Kurdish and Shiite refugees caught on the Turkish and Iranian borders. The parallels are heightened by knowledge that ``Journey of Hope'' is based on real events that occurred three years ago.
The story begins in Turkey, as a peasant family decides to leave its ancestral country. The only indication that Switzerland may offer them a more comfortable life is a postcard from a relative who has already made the trip and established himself. One postcard is flimsy evidence - even before a goat munches some of it for lunch - on which to base a major decision.
But it's enough to prod the husband and wife into leaving all but one of their children to the care of others, collecting the small amount of money they can muster, and beginning the trip with more goodwill and enthusiasm than information and sound advice. It doesn't take long for swindlers, smugglers, and false friends to start taking merciless and potentially lethal advantage of them.
``Journey of Hope'' is a handsomely made picture, filmed by director Xavier Koller and cinematographer Elemer Ragalyi with great visual panache. Eventually this becomes one of the movie's deficits, however, as photogenic locations and picturesque shots deflect attention from the increasingly desperate plight of the characters. This is not to say the film is all style and no substance, because it's more touching than such a criticism would imply. Yet the movie's smooth cinematic approach works against th e harsh authenticity of the story.
No such reservations apply to the performances, which are solid and believable. Or to the painfully relevant subject of the film, which emerges forcefully from the singleminded screenplay by Mr. Koller and Feride Cicekoglu.
``Journey of Hope'' is being presented in the United States by Barry Levinson and Mark Johnson, the director-producer team whose work includes ``Good Morning, Vietnam'' and ``Rain Man'' as well as the recent ``Avalon'' and other films.
In my view, they have accumulated a mixed record as purveyors of socially alert cinema, usually putting more emphasis on entertainment value (such as Robin Williams's ravings in the ``Vietnam'' comedy-drama) and star performances (including Dustin Hoffman's courageous but mechanical ``Rain Man'' portrayal) than on the problems and values their pictures are supposedly about. Credit is due them for bringing ``Journey of Hope'' to US screens.
While it's more modest and less interesting than some of its recent Oscar competitors, such as ``The Nasty Girl'' and ``Open Doors,'' it's the kind of simple human drama that often gets overlooked, especially when it hails from a country (Switzerland, in this case) not usually associated with international film production.