Belgium: power to be reckoned with on the movie screen

Movies are flourishing in Belgium. True, the Belgian cinema does not carry nearly as much international clout as some of its West European neighbors -- particularly France, West Germany, and Italy. But all kinds of films are being made and shown there, and the world is beginning to take notice. Judging from a current program at the Museum of Modern Art, it's about time.

"Belgium Today: Recent Films and Rediscoveries" has been prepared by the museum's film department, along with the Cinematheque Royale de Belgique and the ministries of Dutch and French communities. The show is part of "Belgium Today, " a nationwide United States commemoration of the 150th anniversary of Belgian independence.

The film program includes works made between 1928 and 1979. Its all-inclusiveness demonstrates the diversity of the Belgian movie scene. Fiction, documentary, animation, and avant-garde are all represented. Most of the films are spoken in Flemish or French, with English subtitles. The schedule runs through May 12.

Sampling the show at a series of preview screenings, I discovered at least a couple of movies that could easily hold their own as regular commercial offerings in the United States. The most substantial of these is "Woman in a Twilight Garden," by veteran filmmaker Andre Delvaux. The plot focuses on a woman's involvement with two young men -- one a fascist and one a resistance fighter -- during the occupation of Belgium in the 1940s.

The basic political struggles of the period are deftly etched, and the story continues into the 1950s, carrying its characters beyond political issues and into the realm of pure emotion. It is an overlong film, and some of its methods are rather blunt. Yet it is an involving and instructive work that provides a first-hand glimpse at universally recognizable personalities being shaped and influenced by events particular to mid-century Belgium.

A more familiar kind of story is told in "Tip of the Tongue," the first film by Jean-Marie Degesves. It is spoken in French -- the language of so very, very many movies about childhood and adolescence, which is a continuing pre- occupation among cineastes in France itself. "Tip of the Tongue" contributes nothing new to the genre, with its questionable yarn about a teen-ager initiated into love by an older woman who then pushes him out of the nest and into a life of his own. Aside from a few offensively childish moments, it is a reasonably affecting picture.

Interestingly, Belgium is not entirely occupied with such relatively conventional narratives. A strong avant-garde movement exists there, too, with roots that go as far back as Charles Dekeukeleire, a pioneer whose early experiments are represented by several films in the "Belgium Today" program. Chief among these is "Impatience," a brilliant 1928 achievement that uses editing and composition to build a sense of explosive speed and energy, even though most of the objects seen on the screen are standing still. "Histoire de Detective" (1929) is the deliberately quirky tale of a private eye investigating a married couple; the gaps and imprecisions of the investigation become an amusing part of the surrealistic story.

More of a plot is found in "The Evil Eye," a 1937 melo- drama about a mysterious drifter who seems to be causing havoc in a peaceful countryside. Here the gifted Dekeukeleire combined his talent for abstract design with his yen for storytelling, and produced a static but visually compelling tale. Also on the program are works by another celebrated master of early Belgian cinema, Henry Storck.

Representing a more recent branch of Belgium's "experimental" cinema is Chantal Akerman, who has perhaps the most solid and far-reaching reputation of any Belgian filmmaker. A highlight of the program is her 1975 picture called "Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles." It takes nearly 3 1/2 hours to chronicle three days in the mostly humdrum life of its middle-aged heroine. As a visual exercise it is fascinating, particularly in its use of "real time" as well as "screen time," and in its rigorous camera setups. As a story it is rather reactionary, however -- just a murder mystery, really, with a slow buildup to a conventional climax.

Just as austere, and a lot more bizarre, is "Pierre" by Jan Decorte, which depicts a day in the life of a young man who turns out to be really weird. Made a year later than Akerman's film, it treats some of the same preoccupations in a more extreme and more concentrated way. Such films as these would have little success among casual, everyday moviegoers. But they do reveal the searching, self-questioning adventurousness that is essential to the long-run health of any national cinema.

The schedule is rounded out with a variety of other films, including a selection of animations. Among these are at least two masterpieces of serious cartoonery: "Harpya" by Raoul Servais and "Agulana" by Gerald Frydman. On a more controversial level, audiences should be warned of the presence of Thierry Zeno on the program. It would be regrettable if unwary viewers wandered into his innovatively obscene "Vase de Noces" or his slyly manipulative documentary about death, "Des Morts" (made with Jean-Pol Ferbus and Dominique Garny).

From the length and depth of the Belgian filmfest, it is clear that Belgium is in the midst of a strong cinematic period. Surely failures and misbegotten movies are being cranked out along with splendid examples of the best moviemaking tendencies. In all, however, it looks like Belgium is fast becoming a power to be reckoned with on movie screens around the world.

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