NEW YORK — THE word glasnost has faded from headlines since the dramatic breakup of the Soviet Union, but many artists from the former USSR vividly recall the difference this policy of openness made in their lives just a few years ago.
One such person is Alexander Sokurov, a Russian filmmaker whose most important works are now having a major United States tour. Of all the films he completed between 1980 and 1987 - two features, several shorts, and six documentaries - not one was cleared by Soviet censors for public exhibition.
When glasnost made its debut, almost all these productions were taken off the shelf and into the projection booth, thanks to political changes and work by the Soviet Filmmakers' Union on Mr. Sokurov's behalf. He has made several more movies now, including three fiction films and 12 documentaries.
Like the more commercially inclined Andrei Konchalovsky, whose American film "The Inner Circle" is playing in US theaters, Sokurov received part of his cinematic training from Andre Tarkovsky, a legendary Russian filmmaker whose "Andrei Rublev" and "Solaris" are among the most respected of all postwar Soviet movies. The late Mr. Tarkovsky treated cinema less as an entertainment medium than as a means of exploring the deepest and most evasive human issues, including the roles of love, memory, and spiritua l awareness in building and sustaining a meaningful life.
Sokurov has inherited many of these same concerns and has the same determination to use cinema as a medium for high art rather than easy diversion. He avoids straightforward stories and simply defined characters, preferring to explore situations that evoke complicated mixtures of thought and emotion from the people involved in them. While the subject of death often enters his films, it is treated as an opportunity for contemplation and transcendence rather than an excuse for morbidity or inaction.
Sokurov is a minimalist of sorts, avoiding flamboyant effects in favor of austere and often somber imagery. His most recent fiction film, "The Second Circle," shows how effectively he uses this approach. Focusing on a young man confronting the unexpected death of his father, it takes place largely in a barren room where the protagonist goes through the lonely rituals of preparing his deceased parent for burial. What lifts the film above self-indulgent gloominess is the eloquence of Sokurov's visual style , which gradually transforms outward signs of grief into muted suggestions of peace and transcendence.
Other films in the touring Sokurov retrospective are varied and impressive. They include:
* "The Lonely Voice of Man," made as a thesis for the State Institute of Cinematography between 1978 and 1987, then hidden from Soviet authorities after the institute rejected it for having "formalist" tendencies. An incredibly moving film, it deals with several subjects, including the romance and marriage of a young couple. Most impressive is its use of a Sokurov trademark - cutting between past and present, reality and memory, fiction and documentary, in ways that make poetic rather than literal sense.
* "Mournful Indifference," was made in 1983 and loosely based on "Heartbreak House," a play by George Bernard Shaw that no longer lives up to its well-established reputation. Mingling extravagantly performed Shaw scenes with World War II newsreel shots and touching documentary footage of Shaw himself, the film never quite meshes into a coherent whole, although many individual moments are striking.
* "Days of the Eclipse," filmed in 1988. A young physician takes an isolated post in central Asia, where he must cope with social difficulties as well as health problems and complexities of his own family life. The film is not consistently successful, but its cinematic qualities are boldly original.
* "Save and Protect," made in 1989 and based on Gustave Flaubert's novel "Madame Bovary," which Sokurov turns into a freewheeling character study that examines its literary source without feeling obliged to reproduce its details. Particularly interesting is the film's wide-angle camera work, another frequent Sokurov device.
SOKUROV has reportedly remarked that the general poverty of the Soviet film industry in recent years, with its problems of providing decent equipment and film stock to filmmakers, has actually helped him as an artist - by forcing him to be inventive and preventing him from falling back on mere technical feats, as so many Western directors have developed the habit of doing.
All the films in his retrospective show the sincerity of this observation. Each of them contains some moments that don't quite work. But not one fails to maintain a sense of conviction, integrity, and adventurousness from first shot to last.
Assembled by the International Film Circuit, an organization based in Manhattan and best-known for its ongoing "Cutting Edge" series of non-American cinema, the five-film program recently had its American theatrical premiere at the Walter Reade Theater here. Its touring schedule includes stops in Toronto (February); Cambridge, Mass. (March); Berkeley, Calif. and Austin, Texas (April); Albuquerque, N.M. (May); Houston (June); and engagements to be announced in Ithaca, N.Y.; Cleveland; and Vancouver, B.C.