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Festival Unveils Stellar Crop of Art Films

`New Directors/New Films' spotlights work of bold auteurs from 18 countries

By David SterrittStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 28, 1994


THE annual New Directors/New Films series, presented at the Museum of Modern Art in collaboration with the Film Society of Lincoln Center, is often considered the ``second festival'' of this movie-conscious city.

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It carries less prestige than the New York Film Festival, which attracts international attention every fall. But connoisseurs know that ND/NF has irreplaceable value all its own - since its mandate is to pass deliberately over the latest work by major auteurs, instead discovering fresh surprises from talents who might be tomorrow's directorial superstars.

On these terms, its track record is excellent. Patrons of ND/NF have been the first on their block to see such art-movie hits as ``She's Gotta Have It'' and ``My Life as a Dog.'' Last year alone saw the unveiling of such pictures as Sally Potter's audacious ``Orlando,'' which went on to widespread acclaim, and Daniel Bergman's eloquent ``Sunday's Children,'' soon to have its American theatrical premiere.

Again this year, the ND/NF slate includes several films clearly destined for applause far beyond the museum and festival circuit. One of the most striking is the opening-night attraction, The Girl in the Watermelon, which has a freshness and liveliness that outshine nearly everything Hollywood has pitched at us lately.

The title character is Samantha, a 17-year-old with a problem: She never knew her father, and her mother is oddly stingy with details about this mysterious parent. Armed with clues from her mom's old diaries, Samantha hits the streets of New York on a search for her dad - only to find more than one candidate for the position, each more unexpected than the last.

``The Girl in the Watermelon'' has a catchy and surprising story, but what makes it glow on screen is Sergio Castilla's sprightly directorial style. The movie is enriched by imaginative shots, energized by dynamic editing, and bathed in colors even bolder than its Latin-spiced music score.

The pace lets down for a while in the movie's last half hour, which could have used some judicious trimming; this quibble aside, the picture is a pleasure to behold. The selection committee of ND/NF stretched its standards by deeming Castilla a new director, since this native Chilean has made several Latin American and European movies. But three cheers for bending the rules when the result is so enticing.

A very different mood pervades Ivan and Abraham, directed by Yolande Zauberman, the daughter of Polish Jews who endured first-hand experiences of Nazi terror. Set in a Polish village during the 1930s, her film centers on a nine-year-old Jewish boy and his closest friend, a 14-year-old gentile who lives with a Jewish family as an apprentice.

The adventures of these youngsters begin when the proprietor of their village, an irresponsible prince, stirs up anti-Semitic sentiment by abandoning his estate and leaving the townspeople prey to severe financial troubles. Unhappy with the prospects awaiting them in their devastated community, the boys flee to the countryside, where they encounter new and old acquaintances, including Abraham's daringly independent sister and her lover, a man who has earned the suspicion of their village by daring to be a Communist.