MONTREAL — The annual World Film Festival here is one of the world's grandest film events, presenting some 250 features - not to mention scads of shorts and medium-length movies - over 11 days (through Sept. 4). This year's attractions hail from more than 50 countries.
The fact remains that American pictures are the most popular on the planet, though. Try as it may to stress a cosmopolitan outlook, even a globally minded festival must tip its hat to this reality.
Regardless of who picks up the prizes bestowed by various juries this Monday, it's unlikely that any film will have drawn larger audiences here than David Mamet's new comedy, "State and Main," or will have earned more press attention than Stephen Hopkins's thriller "Under Suspicion," if only because Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman star.
But one of the best purposes a festival can serve is to spotlight deserving films from elsewhere. Montreal is perfectly positioned to accomplish this, given the multiculturalism of its society, which combines deep French roots with influences from the Anglophone provinces around it.
Add the festival's heartily democratic spirit - unlike many such events, it makes critics and other insiders watch movies alongside ticket-buying patrons, not at special screenings - and you have the opportunity for a sophisticated snapshot of world cinema's current health.
The news is generally good, and one of the indicators is State and Main, the aforementioned Mamet movie - shown here in its world premire and due in US theaters just before Christmas.
It's the kind of American picture considered risky by industry types because it's short on action, long on dialogue, and therefore of limited value in non-English-speaking markets. In other words, it's the antithesis of the eye-assaulting spectacles that have filled malls and multiplexes this summer. But it was received with gales of laughter and applause in this bilingual city.
The story is about Hollywood filmmakers trying to shoot a picture called "The Old Mill" in a small Vermont town, after a New Hampshire town has thrown them out on their ears - for reasons we never quite learn but can easily imagine, given the egotism of the director, the obnoxiousness of the producer, and the lecherousness of the star.
Also on hand is the writer of "The Old Mill," whose challenges include rewriting a nude scene for an actress who refuses to get nude, and covering up for the leading man when he's caught in a scandal.
Mamet uses his characters to explore his usual interests in romantic love, conflicts between appearance and reality, and - through an edgy subplot about the star's relationship with a teenage girl - the recurrent weaknesses in human nature. He also dishes up some of the year's cleverest lines, helped by an impressive cast, including William H. Macy as the director, Philip Seymour Hoffman as the writer, and Alec Baldwin as the reprehensible actor.
Under Suspicion takes a more direct and disturbing look at sex, centering on a powerful attorney (Hackman) being investigated by a tireless policeman (Freeman) who thinks he's responsible for a series of rapes and murders. The drama isn't particularly insightful, but it gains a degree of power from its savvy performances and emotionally claustrophobic atmosphere. It comes to US theaters later this month.
The festival opened with a splendid example of traditional French filmmaking: The Taste of Others, made by actress and screenwriter Agns Jaoui in her directing debut. The many-layered plot shows how people - a lovelorn businessman, a lonely bodyguard, an aging actress, and others - unconsciously adjust their behaviors and beliefs to fit in better with the people near and dear to them. It's slated for the coming New York Film Festival (Sept. 22-Oct. 9).
A more adventurous outing comes from one of the world's most adventurous talents: Raoul Ruiz, a Chilean-born director who often makes American and European productions. His oddly titled Love Torn in Dream is a superbly cinematic comedy-drama that weaves nine stories into an interlocking set of fantasies.
The characters range from an earnest theology student to a band of pirates, and it's a measure of the movie's freewheeling nature that some of the most active folks turn out to be dead or illusory.
Ruiz has gained much praise for his recent Marcel Proust adaptation "Time Regained," but this surrealistic romp is his liveliest picture in years.
Even more unorthodox is Messiah, a film version of the much-loved oratorio that accompanies Georg Friedrich Handel's glorious music with documentary scenes giving a guided tour of modern-day approaches to Christianity, from traditional worship to dubious phenomena.
Directed by the great Paris-based photographer William Klein, it's the sort of serious (and sometimes disturbing) cinematic excursion that may never reach commercial theaters - which is all the more reason for moviegoers to visit festivals like this whenever the opportunity arises.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society