In another sign that the movies are growing serious again, political themes are returning to the screen.
Leading the way is ''Reds,'' the biography of John Reed, an early Communist and journalist, which has garnered a surprising 12 nominations in this year's Academy Awards race. Also prominent is ''Ragtime,'' which has dropped many political elements from E.L. Doctorow's original novel, but keeps a strong social dimension with its story of a black man driven to desperation by white injustice.
Lands far from Hollywood have contributed, too. The newest drama from Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci, a slow and brooding film called ''The Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man,'' concerns an industrialist whose son is apparently kidnapped by terrorists. ''The Boat Is Full,'' from Switzerland, deals with the moral dilemma posed by German refugees during World War II -- and warns about the dangers of neutralism and the limitations of democracy, according to director Markus Imhoof, in a recent New York conversation.
And in ''Circle of Deceit,'' Volker Schlondorff, the respected West German filmmaker, deals with a journalist's crisis of conscience while reporting on the civil war in Lebanon. It meanders into sexual politics at times, including a couple of unnecessarily explicit love scenes; yet it is concerned as much with social themes as with personal drama and does a capable job of holding its diverse elements in a delicate balance.
Of all the recent political pictures, however, the most noteworthy comes from Hollywood. Working with an American studio for the first time, European director Costa-Gavras has earned rave reviews and big audiences with ''Missing.'' Based on a true story, it focuses on an American businessman who goes to Chile in search of his mysteriously vanished son, after the military coup that ousted Marxist President Salvador Allende Gossens.
If early response from many critics and audiences is an indication, ''Missing'' could become one of the most popular films of the year. Still, it has generated controversy with its opinions on recent events in Chile -- which is never named, but is clearly the setting for the story. US State Department officials have reportedly criticized the film for implying that American officials failed to help effectively in searching for the missing man. Newspaper columnists have also jumped into the fray, with various views on issues raised by the movie, including the question of alleged American complicity in the anti-Allende coup and in violence against people believed to sympathize with the ousted government.
In a recent interview over lunch in New York, filmmaker Costa-Gavras acknowledged that controversy over such a film was to be expected. But he also insisted that his main interest was in the personal elements of the story -- the human drama -- rather than polemics.
''I have my convictions,'' he said. ''But the film deals only with assumptions. I'm not trying to show 'the way it was,' like a documentary. I was interested in the relationships and conflicts between the generations of a family, and how a father can learn new things about his own son, as well as his country. I wanted to give the impressions and feelings I had when I learned the story of this man. If you feel as I felt when you watch the film, then I've accomplished what I was after.''
''Missing'' indeed emphasizes the human dimensions of its characters, quite apart from the international intrigue they find themselves wrapped up in. The film's skeptical politics are balanced by a deep concern for personal and family values often identified as conservative: religion as a source of strength and sustenance, love between father and son, fidelity and trust between husband and wife. There's even a close friendship between a young man and woman that doesn't spill into a love affair -- a rare situation in a contemporary movie!
All this is no accident. Costa-Gavras is conservative when it comes to such matters, and proudly so. ''I believe very much in the family,'' he says. ''It is probably the most important unit in society, and it was a big mistake when some people (in the 1960s) tried to alter this system. The family came back strongly, of course. But it's too bad that certain groups now want to reinforce family values with laws rather than love. This won't work, because love is the only base for the family. When there is love, you don't need artificial rules.''
Such personal and family concerns are only one element of ''Missing,'' to be sure. Also present, as in such earlier Costa-Gavras films as ''Z'' and ''Special Section,'' are the filmmaker's attitudes toward international affairs and power politics. Explaining his interest in the subject matter of ''Missing,'' he cites a report by Amnesty International that the specific problem confronted in the film -- the disappearance of dissidents -- is still current in some 30 countries around the world. ''Power has its own needs that are not always convenient for the individual,'' he says, summing up a major message of the picture. ''This is one of the oldest problems of our society, and it is a general philosophical aspect of the film.''
Despite the movie's implications of American skulduggery during the right-wing Chilean coup, Costa-Gavras does not see ''Missing'' as anti-American in any sense. ''It's a pro-American fact that this picture has been made at all, '' he says. ''This shows the tradition of freedom and self-criticism in the United States. That is one of the biggest riches of democracy -- to see problems , speak about them, and eventually correct them. This is one of the very few countries, if not the only one, where such a film could be made and shown freely. That's my epilogue to the movie.''
The product of a mixed Greek and French background, Costa-Gavras sees ''Missing'' as part of an old Hollywood tradition of socially conscious films - a heritage that influenced him long before he made his first Hollywood picture. To him, ''Missing'' is a logical extension of movies like ''The Grapes of Wrath'' and ''The Caine Mutiny,'' which question contemporary policies and conventions. The next step for cinema, some years from now, may be films ''that go even deeper into problems and see them from a still stronger political or social point of view.'' It's a process of evolution, he feels.
Though he loves putting movies and ideas together, Costa-Gavras doubts whether films make a good vehicle for change, social or personal. ''You have to keep movies in perspective,'' he says. ''Some films have had an effect on me . . . but that doesn't mean they can change the world, a society, or even an individual. It's just not enough - which is fortunate, because films could easily be misused. At most, a movie opens a small window on the world. That's about all you can claim for cinema.''
Above all, Costa-Gavras believes a movie should be enjoyable and accessible.''I strongly think movies must be popular,'' he insists. ''As a moviegoer, I like pictures when I understand them, I learn something, and I stay interested. That's how I try to make my pictures.'' By contrast, he is ''rarely interested'' in ''long political documentaries,'' which tend to be ''based on ideological positions - trying to lead you in one direction, to defend one idea, and to please one audience that probably agrees with it in the first place.''
Most important, he believes, is to reach the emotions of the viewer. ''That is the best way to communicate with people,'' he says, ''and the most honest. Ideas can be misled. But emotions are direct. They can never be manipulated for very long. . . .''