Bertolucci tangos with sex, again

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It's been seven years since a major studio released a film with an NC-17 rating, but on Friday, Fox Searchlight will end that streak with "The Dreamers."

Introduced in 1990, the NC-17 is intended as an alternative to the X rating, which viewers associate with pornography. In theory, the NC-17 means a film has serious artistic intentions as well as more than usual amounts of sex or violence. In practice, that's largely the way things have worked out, with thought-provoking pictures by such screen artists as Peter Greenaway being released with that tag. The most recent NC-17 was the independent "L.I.E." in 2001, a probing drama about child abuse.

The downside is that some advertising media and theater chains treat NC-17 movies with the same disdain they give to the X, as if classics like "Midnight Cowboy" and "A Clockwork Orange" hadn't had X ratings in their day. For this reason, most movies qualifying for an NC-17 go into theaters without any ratings at all, denying audiences the information a rating conveys about film content. (Only foreign films and independent features have this option; as a member of the Motion Picture Association of America, Fox Searchlight did not.)

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"The Dreamers" was directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, maker of Oscar-winning hits "The Last Emperor" and "The Conformist," as well as "Last Tango in Paris," which earned Oscar nominations under its original X in 1972. His new movie is less memorable, but there's no question about its desire to present a thoughtful exploration of links between political and sexual freedom in the fabled '60s.

Set in 1968, when an unlikely union of intellectuals and workers came close to sparking all-out revolution in Paris, the plot centers on an American student who becomes friendly with a French brother and sister who are abnormally intimate with each other, although apparently not to the point of incest. What joins the three is their passion for movies - a passion Bertolucci pays tribute to from the beginning of the story, which depicts mass protests against government meddling with the French cinema scene.

"The Dreamers" is best when it recreates the cultural and political ferment of the era, capturing the idealism that made youths push against the social boundaries imposed on them by elders. The film's interest diminishes when it dwells too long on the sexual side of its characters. Their personal adventures aren't nearly as compelling as the explosive events happening outside their apartment windows.

Rated NC-17; contains explicit sex.

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