Foreign films: an alternative to the summer blockbusters

Though the summer blockbusters are drawing the most attention, from ''E.T.'' to ''Rocky III,'' they aren't the only choices for warm-weather moviegoers. A stream of foreign films is also flowing to American screens, providing varied alternatives to the latest big-budget fare from Hollywood.

As often happens, France is in the lead, with a pair of major entries. The more modest of the two is also the more worthwhile: La Vie Continue, written and directed by Moshe Mizrahi, who is best known for his ''Madame Rosa'' of a few seasons ago.

''La Vie Continue'' might be called ''An Unmarried Frenchwoman.'' The main character is a mother approaching middle age, living contentedly with her family. When her husband suddenly passes on, she finds herself facing a set of brand-new problems - how to raise the children, cope with loneliness, and pay the bills on her own.

She's a strong person, fortunately, and she needs every bit of that strength to pull through this difficult period. At the end, many things are not entirely resolved. Still, we know she has grown to the point of not just survival, but new happiness. As the title says, ''life goes on.''

Yes, this is the stuff of many an earlier film, including the French ''A Man and a Woman,'' the German ''A Free Woman,'' and the American ''An Unmarried Woman.'' Mizrahi brings little new to the tale, but makes it sing - quietly, mildly - with his calm and unassuming treatment.

Add a deeply felt performance by Annie Girardot in the leading role, and you have a responsible addition to the small but growing collection of films about capable women who prove they can face life without a man around the house. ''La Vie Continue'' has been criticized for making things too easy for its heroine, who is surrounded by nice children, sympathetic friends, and even a lovable old boss. Yet her achievement is seen as very much her own, and Miss Girardot stresses her individuality at every opportunity. It's a thoughtful movie, if a minor one.

Since he burst on the American scene with ''A Man and a Woman'' in the mid-' 60s, Claude Lelouch has churned out movies at a vigorous pace. Though few have been worth looking at, many have found an international audience, and Lelouch's ambitions have grown apace. His latest export is three hours long, and it's reported that a version twice as long is waiting in the wings, if the ''short'' edition catches on. Here's hoping it doesn't.

The second French entry, Bolero, is based on the famous piece by Ravel - which even Ravel got tired of, incidentally, to the point where he wouldn't conduct it anymore. Like the composition, the film contains a few motifs which repeat over and over, with minor variations: Boy meets girl, girl marries boy, everyone faces hard times, and major historical events come into play. The characters, mostly unrelated to one another, are traced over several decades and continents. Their different stories are in counterpoint, weaving around and about one another like sinuous threads in the musical work that serves as the movie's model.

It sounds fascinating. And it would be, if the drama lived up to the structure. But the plots and subplots are unfailingly trite, except for a long and moving episode about Jews under Nazi attack, which achieves a desperate power by virtue of its subject alone. What is more, it's all photographed in the patented Lelouch manner, alternating between syrupy and gawky, and quite missing the electrical images of ''A Man and a Woman'' or the catchy visual riffs of ''Cat and Mouse.''

Lelouch begins it all with an excuse, noting (in a prologue) that the world of fiction is based on a handful of stories which are endlessly retold. True, but that's why the domain of the true artist must rest on imagination and invention. Ravel knew his ''Bolero'' was merely an enticing exercise. Lelouch seems to think his is a sweeping work of art. Sadly, it just isn't so. Hungarian films

Hungarian films are rare enough in the United States to merit extra attention when they do arrive. The latest is a mild comedy called The Witness, which satirizes Stalinist politics in Hungary during the 1950s. Made in 1969, it was withheld from the screen for nearly 10 years - presumably because of its controversial politics - and only made it to the West at last year's New York Film Festival. Now it has gone into commercial distribution, released by Libra Films in New York.

The hero is a gentle workingman named Jozsef Pelikan, who fought against fascism in World War II but now just wants to be left alone so he can raise his children in peace. To his bewilderment, he finds himself singled out for ''big things'' by the authorities, who promise him a bright future in the government - something he doesn't want, and is sure he doesn't deserve.

Here follows a series of comic incidents in which Pelikan bungles one job after another, from breeding ''Hungarian oranges'' (poorly disguised lemons) to running an amusement park, which he dutifully ideologizes by inscribing ''Down With Bourgeois Pseudo-Culture'' over the funhouse. In the end, he is inevitably asked to repay the state, by testifying falsely against an old friend. There's no need to give away the ending, except to say that Pelikan ends up happily tending his dike on the Danube once again.

It's a quietly amusing movie, with few uproarious moments but a healthy cynicism toward government folly. J. Hoberman, a film critic for the Village Voice, has traced connections between ''The Witness'' and real Hungarian life during the postwar reign of Matyas Rakosi, identifying the film's ''fall guy'' with ''a popular Communist who was executed in 1951 as the most famous victim of the purges.'' He says also that the movie's villain has a link with ''Rakosi's chief of secret police . . . who took particular relish in torturing his former comrades.''

This lends another dimension of interest to the picture, though when I had lunch with filmmaker Peter Bacso a few months ago, he didn't seem eager to stress such links, or even to discuss the picture's long wait before its exhibition was approved. By most viewers, ''The Witness'' is best seen as an amiable satire on political foibles that have unfortunately not vanished along with any particular regime. Japanese entries

There have been few major imports from Japan lately, and Japanese-film expert Donald Richie told me not long ago that little major work is being done nowadays in the Japanese movie industry.

The arrival of a bizarre picture called Demon Pond may herald a change, or it may not. It's an ambitious film, and a bold one. But it's so delirious in subject and tone that it may be the only one of its kind. Maybe we should hope it is.

The story centers on a young scientist from Tokyo, pursuing his research in the countryside. There he stumbles on a peculiar situation: According to the inhabitants of the town he is visiting, a nearby pond will overflow and drown everyone unless a certain bell is struck three times a day. He also finds that the official bell-tender is an old friend who vanished years ago, and who has dedicated himself to this strange task for love of his beautiful wife.

So far, it's a familiar type of fantasy yarn. Things begin to get out of hand about halfway through, when supernatural beings creep from the pond and join in the plot. Suddenly the screen is swarming with humanoid carps and crabs - one looks just like our old Hollywood friend the creature from the black lagoon - and the story now pivots around the romantic yearnings of a ''dragon god.''

Meanwhile, back at the village, the local authorities have decided a human sacrifice would be a good idea, to placate the goblins in the pond. The climax is a battle between the main characters and everyone else, capped by a cataclysm right out of some long-ago Cecil B. de Mille epic.

All this has been exorbitantly directed by Masahiro Shinoda, who tosses in more color and costumes and craziness than most 10 movies put together. The result is daring enough, though rarely convincing and sometimes downright confusing. Its extravagance is at an opposite pole from Shinoda's last export, the low-key ''Ballad of Orin,'' and it remains to be seen how American audiences will react. Whatever the verdict, it's certainly a change from the more conventional offerings of this (or any other) summer.

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