NEW YORK — THE flow of international films to American screens has slowed to a trickle in the past couple of decades. This situation says a great deal about the dollar-driven mentality that dominates the American film-distribution system.
Under these circumstances, the few distributors that do import an occasional "art movie" from abroad are invaluable assets. Among these companies, New Yorker Films has maintained the most distinguished track record.
It is through this enterprising distributor that the latest movie by Africa's most celebrated director, Ousmane Sembene, is coming to American theaters this summer. Its title is "Guelwaar," and its commercial engagement follows a rousing reception at a recent African retrospective presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
Sembene has stood at the forefront of African film since the 1960s, when his "Black Girl" and "Mandabi" were hailed by moviegoers in many countries. His greatest works, "Xala" and "Ceddo," celebrate the richness of African history and culture while showing a keen awareness of social problems on that continent. He often sees these difficulties as a result of clashes between traditionalism and the lure of modernization in cultures that have been tormented for centuries by imperial, colonial, and sectarian forces.
"Guelwaar," the first film Sembene has completed since his disappointing "Camp de Thiaroye" six years ago, deals with his familiar themes through a darkly comic metaphor.
HE title character, known as Guelwaar or "the noble one," is a Senegalese political activist who has recently died. In life, he was a controversial figure. In death, he turns out to be capable of stirring up still more trouble.
When the time arrives for Guelwaar's burial, his corpse has mysteriously vanished, leading to a delay in the funeral while relatives scamper around trying to find out what happened. Eventually they figure out that his death certificate was switched with another, and that Guelwaar, an ardent Christian, has been inadvertently interred in a Muslim cemetery.
When his friends and family move to rectify the situation, the Muslims object to any tampering with their burial ground. This leads to a confrontation involving the two religious groups, the local mayor - a shameless politician who would rather take credit than action - and the local police chief, who has difficulty maintaining law and order in such a complicated community.
The resonance of this offbeat story has two main sources. One is the unpredictable course of Sembene's narrative style, which flows more like a meandering river than the straight-ahead canals that most Hollywood movies resemble. The plot takes unexpected turns, often branching into subplots, anecdotes, and digressions. The other is Sembene's determination to avoid simplistic answers or pat solutions. Human nature is perennially puzzling, he suggests. Sembene illustrates this point by making his protagoni st both a hero and a rascal - resolute in his Christianity, yet capable of a sexual escapade that diminishes respect for him and his faith in the Islamic community.
In Sembene's opinion, the positions one takes on public affairs must be based on morality, not expediency. This explains why Sembene appears to agree with Guelwaar's stance against foreign aid, even though he offers no solutions to the deep difficulties faced by Senegal and other African nations.
Social programs that are demeaning must be renounced and rejected, the movie maintains; and if high principles have a high cost, so be it.
"Guelwaar" is almost as impressive as Sembene's best movies of the past, signaling the return of a director who stands with the most talented in the third world today.
* "Guelwaar" is in Wolof and French with English subtitles. It does not have an MPAA rating, and contains small amounts of vulgar language and nudity, and discussion of prostitution and AIDS.