Imposing 'Gandhi' has more dignity than insight

It's heartening to see Gandhi become an instant favorite in the cities where it has opened so far. At a time when most movies are frivolous or worse, this huge biographical canvas has tapped a lingering desire for serious fare.

Its subject is imposing, its approach responsible, and it demands an attention span considerably longer than a round with ''Rocky III'' or ''E.T.'' It's an epic worthy of the name, rooted in some of the most fascinating historical events of our century.

This said, though, it is too bad ''Gandhi'' doesn't have much resonance or insight to match its dignity. Eager to survey the scope of Gandhi's career, director Richard Attenborough never digs below the surface. This would be a failing in any biographical picture, but in the case of Gandhi - who considered every aspect of his life and work to be charged with moral and spiritual significance - it's a fatal flaw. The movie fills the screen with facts, rarely pausing for even a hint of the reflection and analysis that its own hero would have considered essential.

The facts are fascinating, of course. We see Gandhi discover his life's work in South Africa, when he is chucked out of a first-class railway car because of his color. We follow his crusade for Indian equality in that nation, and trace his involvement in the Indian independence movement back home.

Along the way, he fights the Hindu caste system, pleads for tolerance among religious and national groups, and develops his methods of noncooperation and nonviolent resistance. At the end, having whipped the British Empire and brought temporary calm between Hindus and Muslims, he succumbs to an assassin's bullet.

Seen in terms of these events, Gandhi was primarily a political creature, as successful as he was radical. But there was far more to Gandhi than statesmanship. He saw his public life, his private life, and his spiritual life as wholly intertwined. While the ''Gandhi'' film never questions or counters this, it never explores the implications, either.

Consider the famous ''hunger strikes,'' which offer important clues to Gandhi and to India as whole. Gandhi never believed in fasting ''against'' his opponents. Rather, he considered a fast to be a penance for his own failure in resolving the moral situation at hand. Thus, on the levels that were most important for him, his fasts were intensely private acts - which nonetheless reached out and touched an entire country, affecting actions and attitudes in ways that physical or political coercion could never approach.

Regrettably, the film offers only a few hints regarding such deeper meanings; Gandhi's ''political'' fasts are treated as if they were elaborate sulks. Other aspects of his life are given even shorter shrift. You'd never guess that liberation of women was one of his top priorities, for instance, since all the movie shows is Gandhi treating his wife like a servant, albeit a beloved one.

Perhaps he did treat her thus. But shouldn't such a fascinating contradiction be duly examined? The matter of Gandhi's sexual continence is also oddly handled. We are told he ''gave up married life,'' which is neither accurate (he still lived with his wife) nor illuminating. One welcomes a vacation from the current barrage of movie sex, and one wouldn't expect the film to probe the details of Gandhi's celibacy - as biographer Ved Mehta has recently done. But reasonable candor is called for in a serious historical work.

The visual style of ''Gandhi'' is physically impressive but unimaginative; there's hardly a shot that doesn't come straight from the standard Hollywood textbooks. The chief redeeming factor is Ben Kingsley's performance in the title role, skillfully treading a thin line between the worldly and the ascetic facets of Gandhi's personality.

Good supporting players include Ian Charleson as a British pal of the Mahatma; Alyque Padamsee as the obsessive Pakistani leader Jinnah; and the fine South African playwright Athol Fugard as Gandhi's foe, General Smuts.

Rohini Hattangady is quietly expressive as the hero's wife, though Roshan Seth - as his protege Nehru - doesn't have the charisma that used to radiate even from newspaper photographs of that statesman. Among cameo appearances, Edward Fox stands out as the tragically misguided General Dyer.

The screenplay of ''Gandhi'' veers close to sentimentalizing its subject at times. The filmmakers might have balanced their portrayal more carefully - perhaps by mentioning Gandhi's reportedly mediocre performance as a father, or his sometimes ill-informed forays into medicine. Indeed, both of those subjects are explored in Louis Fischer's biography of the Mahatma, which was a main source for John Briley's screenplay.

As it stands, the film ''Gandhi'' is more stuffy than stately, more prestigious than prodigious. It never quite captures the essence of Gandhi, or the influence he exerted on other leaders, including Martin Luther King. It's a broad but shallow river of information. Japanese classic

Manhattan is the launching pad for most non-American films entering the United States - including the successful ones that go national, and the letdowns that never get west of the Hudson River. Two new arrivals are making strong bids for nationwide visibility, though they differ greatly in quality and personality.

Actually, one isn't a new movie at all. It's the Japanese classic called The Seven Samurai, directed by Akira Kurosawa, and first released in 1954 under the title ''The Magnificent Seven.'' Despite its high reputation, it turns out this influential masterpiece has never been shown at full length in the United States. According to its distributor, Landmark Films, it was first ''discovered'' for the West by playwright-director Joshua Logan, vacationing in Tokyo, and subsequently given an American release by Columbia Pictures in a version 50 minutes shorter than the original.

Now the missing segments have been restored, and new prints have been struck for a ''premiere'' engagement at the Cinema Studio here. A national release is also planned, bringing ''The Seven Samurai'' - all 208 minutes of it - to a whole new audience.

Meanwhile, the Center for Public Cinema has begun a new policy of first-run movies at the Carnegie Hall Cinema, which is best known as a revival and ''repertory'' theater. Initiating the program is a bold but bizarre drama by Marco Bellocchio called Leap Into the Void, starring Anouk Aimee and Michel Piccoli as a middle-aged sister and brother caught in a web of memories and fears.

Though this Italian import has opened to some very favorable reviews, its peculiar structure - with scrambled tenses and a fractured plot - will probably limit its appeal to ''art theater'' habitues, and even they may be turned off by a lapse into scatology that's as unnecessary as it is disgusting. Still, this offbeat item is off to a successful start with both press and public, and may soon be widely visible on American screens.

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