NEW YORK — IN one of the most resounding political developments of recent years, institutionalized racism has been overthrown in South Africa after four decades of oppressive rule. But like the Holocaust and other 20th-century traumas, the apartheid system must continue to be remembered and pondered by those who suffered through it.
Therefore it's fitting that the first major film produced under South Africa's new regime is ''Cry, the Beloved Country,'' based on an Alan Paton novel written in the 1940s as a passionate protest against racial inequality. Finding the story as resonant as ever in the post-apartheid era, a team of South African filmmakers has brought it to the screen in an interpretation that's as noteworthy for its intelligence and emotional force as for its powerful stand against racism and repression.
The main character is Kumalo (played by James Earl Jones), a black Anglican priest in a Zulu mountain village. Although he and his wife have tried to raise their family in a wise and constructive way, their son Absalom has moved to Johannesburg and fallen in with dubious company.
Visiting the city to rescue his sister from difficulties of her own, Kumalo discovers that Absalom is being held for the murder of a white man - and not just any white man, but one known for liberal views and a staunch hatred of apartheid.
Kumalo tries desperately to help Absalom, but everything works against him, and the young man is sentenced to death. Returning home, Kumalo receives comfort from an unexpected source - the murdered man's father (Richard Harris), a longtime apartheid supporter who has been enlightened by the moral strength of his deceased son's views.
As directed by Darrell James Roodt, a noted South African filmmaker, ''Cry, the Beloved Country'' is a slow and sometimes ungainly tale that makes few concessions to current box-office fashions. Its idiosyncrasies are outweighed, however, by the sense of quiet dignity that runs below the picture's deceptively still surface.
Equally important are the thematic threads that run through the movie. Chief among these is a clear-eyed opposition not only to apartheid, but also to all systems that divide people and bestow arbitrary power on one group over another. Also present is a recognition of the evils attached to capital punishment, seen here as a violent and vindictive tool devoid of moral or practical justification. And it's refreshing to see the strength Kumalo receives from active dedication to his religious ideas.
Written by Ronald Harwood and produced by Anant Singh, two of Roodt's fellow South Africans, the movie is being released in American theaters by Miramax Films, which has mobilized an impressive roster of supporters on its behalf. The premiere screening in New York was introduced by Hillary Rodham Clinton, who praised its commitment to human rights, and followed with a speech by South African President Nelson Mandela, who called it a ''monument to the future,'' stressing its value not as a record of the past but as a pointer to progress.
With its humane view of social and personal hardships, and its reminder that religion can contribute to political growth in ways neither mean-spirited nor narrow-minded, the movie has much to teach American audiences as well as their South African counterparts.
* ''Cry, the Beloved Country'' has a PG-13 rating. It contains violence and references to prostitution and other adult material.