'Va Savoir' is a treat; 'Ciénaga' doesn't gel

what do movie fans, theater buffs, and starry-eyed romantics have in common? They're all going to love Va Savoir, the new comedy-drama by French master Jacques Rivette, now coming to theaters after opening the New York Film Festival last week.

For a picture full of fun and whimsy, "Va Savoir" has a plot that's hard to describe. The heroine is Camille, a French actress returning to Paris after three years in Italy, where she joined a theater group led by her boyfriend. This troupe has come to Paris for performances of a play by Luigi Pirandello, a dramatist known for weaving realism and fantasy into intricate yet entertaining stories, just as Rivette does here.

As things turn out, giving good performances in the play is the least of Camille's challenges. Her former boyfriend, a self-important Frenchman, wants to renew their old relationship. Meanwhile, her Italian lover has become obsessed with finding the manuscript of a long-lost work by another great playwright. He gets infatuated with an attractive student who offers to help him, which brings her mother and brother, a ditsy cook and a shady womanizer, into the story along with various other characters - not to mention dizzying doses of love, rivalry, and suspicion.

Some moviegoers may be put off by this complicated plot, and others may shy away from the movie's 2-1/2-hour running time. But one of the most endearing qualities of "Va Savoir" is the way it turns such a large number of characters, plot twists, and ideas into a smoothly flowing tale that floats lightly and gracefully across the screen.

"Va Savoir" is a delicious treat in its own right, and for fans of French cinema it has extra importance, since it marks a return to greatness for Rivette, a once-legendary filmmaker - he helped launch the revolutionary New Wave movement in the 1960s - whose reputation has faded in recent years because of his unwillingness to compromise his sophisticated vision for the sake of fame and fortune.

"Va Savoir" has all the trademarks Rivette cultivated in bygone classics like "L'Amour fou" and "Céline and Julie Go Boating" during the '60s and '70s. He still loves the contrasts between film and theater, the mysteries that grow from vaguely sensed conspiracies, and the ways unexpected miracles can blossom in the most ordinary lives.

All are on view in "Va Savoir," and never has Rivette nurtured them with a deeper intelligence or a greater sense of fun. Every one of its 150 minutes is a delight, and the ecstatic ending brought tears to many an eye - including mine - when it premièred at Cannes last spring.

American moviegoers don't attend foreign-language films as often as they used to, but this is one picture they should make it their business not to miss.

Argentina doesn't export many films to the United States, so any new arrival is newsworthy. La Ciénaga, directed by newcomer Lucrecia Martel, comes to theaters from the New York and Toronto Film Festivals, among others, where it was enthusiastically greeted by critics and audiences alike. Some of the fuss is justified, but the movie isn't quite as exciting as early reviews have claimed.

The story centers on two households, each plagued by more than its share of problems, from hard-drinking parents to dissatisfied children. Making things worse, it's the hottest summer anyone can remember. The only diversion from this gloomy situation is a series of reports that a local youngster is seeing miraculous visions atop the town's water tower. Is this a true spiritual event, or is it a fantasy or a hoax? And if it were genuine, would it really help the misguided people who are getting a momentary thrill out of it?

"La Ciénaga" would be a more absorbing movie if it put more trust in this subplot and explored the meaning of religion - or the lack thereof - in the lives of its characters. But writer-director Martel is more interested in detailing squalid personalities and the miseries they put each other through.

This is regrettable, because she shows real promise as a filmmaker. Her camera work and editing have consistent energy and flair, and the acting - by a mixture of professionals and nonprofessionals - is stunningly authentic.

What's missing is a well-developed script to keep us interested in these unlikable characters after the novelty of getting to know them wears off. The picture deserves credit for etching its grimy realism so vividly, and for condensing the experiences of so many individuals - three generations, each with its own set of difficulties - into a single concentrated plot.

But dysfunctional families are all too common in current movies, and the ones in "La Ciénaga" aren't compelling enough to warrant a prolonged visit.

'Va Savoir' is rated PG-13, and contains sexual innuendo and brief nudity. 'La Ciénaga' is not rated. It contains some violence and sex.

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