'Who am I?': today's films tackle the identity question

Questions of identity are in the air. The best movies of the year all deal with people asking - consciously or not - who they are, who they ought to be, or who they should try to become.

None of these pictures offer the technical thrills or razzle-dazzle of most recent hits. But all have real ideas on their minds, rooted in character rather than action. And they have fared well with audiences, indicating a possible shift away from the ''Star Wars'' syndrome, in which - witness the new ''Return of the Jedi'' - you can't even tell who's who sometimes, as the spaceships zoom and the light-sabers slice toward their targets.

One of my favorite cases is ''Local Hero,'' a magical film that probes the issue of identity with a gentle and loving touch. The main character, a young American named Mac, has taken on the job of buying up a sleepy Scottish fishing village so it can be demolished by an oil conglomerate.

At the beginning of the story, Mac lives and breathes the most familiar American dreams: He worships his car, never visits when a phone is handy, and won't even stroll on the beach without lugging his briefcase along. He's a nice guy, but he can't see past his own habits and possessions.

A little time in the Scottish boondocks, though, and he's changed down to his bones. After a mild dose of culture shock has worn off, he begins to sense the friendliness and generosity of his new acquaintances, and to love the ageless beauty of their land.

Bit by bit, he responds to a way of living and thinking that's truer to human nature than anything his corporate career had to offer. Soon his briefcase lies forgotten; his clothes rumple; his face grows grizzled; and his electronic wristwatch - still beeping the business hours back in Houston - washes out to sea.

This isn't the only story line of ''Local Hero,'' which has lots of characters and complications. After seeing the movie three times, though, what warms me most is the subtle yet profound change in how Mac sees himself - no longer as a hustling businessman, but as a whole person with affections and yearnings that mean more than all the money he'll ever earn.

As icing on the cake, filmmaker Bill Forsyth gives hints of similar insights in other characters, from an African clergyman to a Russian rover. And he tosses in delicious details - an eccentric Scot and an oil company having the same name , for example - that would be portentous in an ordinary movie, but here become sly jokes on our preconceptions about labels and appearances.

''Tender Mercies'' also deals with issues of identity, though its tone is very different. The story focuses on Mack Sledge (played by Robert Duvall), a former country-music star with a career wrecked by alcohol.

Finding himself literally at the end of the line, he hunkers down where he is - it happens to be a lonely motel owned by a young widow - and sets about changing his life. With the help of a new family, whose quiet strength and honesty give needed support, he becomes a stronger person than ever, despite confusions and setbacks along the way.

One of the movie's most poignant elements is the trouble Mack has realizing how sturdy and resourceful he really is. At the end, in a heartbreaking scene, he tells how false the appearance of happiness has proved in his life. Yet even as he speaks, the film makes clear that deep joys are all around him - he just doesn't quite know it yet.

The flaw in Mack's sense of identity was his slim awareness of how strong he always was. Now that he's reaching that awareness, however gropingly, his path points upward for sure. And that's what makes audiences glow at the end of this very fine movie.

''The Year of Living Dangerously,'' by Australian director Peter Weir, carries speculation about identity into its own casting - with an important male character, an enigmatic figure named Billy who controls much of the action, played by a woman.

The result is not only an unusual (and ingenious) filmmaking maneuver. It also carries a central theme of the movie into a new dimension. Set in Indonesia during the last days of the Sukarno regime, the story focuses on a journalist who has tough decisions to make - decisions reflecting the Asian idea that opposites don't come in neatly opposed packages, but may be intertwined within a single event, object, or idea.

The character of his friend Billy, a complicated mix of idealism and practicality, embodies this attitude. And the portrayal of Billy by actress Linda Hunt (untainted by any hint of perversity or campiness) indirectly reminds us that masculine and feminine qualities themselves are not absolutes forever divided from each other, but complementary aspects of a single and ultimately indivisible mankind. A most provocative observation about identity, to be sure.

Yet no more provocative than the bold explorations of ''Angelo, My Love,'' written and directed by actor-cum-filmmaker Robert Duvall. In a cinematic coup, it features a troupe of real-life New York gypsies in fictional roles that echo their own personalities and experiences.

There's plenty of make-believe, naturally, as the unschooled (but stunningly talented) performers barge through a constantly shifting story about families feuding over a stolen ring. Yet the unruly proceedings have a ring of truth, authenticity, and streetwise poetry that's just about unparalleled in recent movies. Part documentary, part melodrama, part sheer fancy, ''Angelo'' goes past individual identities to evoke two whole cultures in uproarious confrontation - treating the inevitable mix-ups with an inspired blend of understanding, compassion, and hilarity.

It's an intuitive kind of movie, resting more on instinct than analysis. But it says more about human nature, and reveals more about the conundrums of identity, than many a weighty tome. Three cheers. Disappointing French films

It's about 25 years since the ''new wave'' popped up in France, changing everyone's notion of what movies are all about. The basic strategy was to value spontaneity, invention, and energy over the high ideas and ''tradition of quality'' that were accused of draining vitality from the cinema scene.

Judging from the latest French exports to arrive on American screens, a new ''new wave'' is needed in a hurry. A comedy and a drama, the current visitors show signs of life, but bog down in tired conventions.

The main metaphor of La Boum is a party, or ''boum,'' that becomes a rite of passage for the teen-age heroine - whose efforts to grow up are not helped by parents who don't always manage their act their age. It's a typically French tale, and director Claude Pinoteau comes up with some very funny touches. But stale or simply vulgar bits intrude, and the action is punctuated by quick-cutting interludes that are as embarrassingly coy as they are unneeded.

The Return of Martin Guerre has a fascinating premise. In the 16th century, a prodigal son returns to his native village after years of absence. The locals greet him happily, at first, but soon doubts arise. Is this the real Martin, or an imposter? And if he's a fake, what gain could there be in taking over Martin's simple, hardworking life?

I was happily involved in all this until about halfway through when I realized there were no surprises in store. The villagers argue the case; the putative Martin pleads his side of it; some intellectuals come in to help; and finally we learn what's what. The only message is that forensics weren't very advanced 400 years ago - an interesting fact, but is it worth the price of a movie ticket?

Daniel Vigne directed the film, which has won three Cesars, the French equivalent of Oscars. American remake of French classic

On the other side of the Atlantic, meanwhile, an oddity has emerged from Hollywood: a remake of Breathless, the Jean-Luc Godard classic (from a Francois Truffaut story) that helped spark the ''new wave'' in its earliest days.

As countless moviegoers know, the original ''Breathless'' - about a small-time hoodlum and his American girlfriend - is one of a kind, a wacky and freewheeling film that's drenched with Godard's patented eccentricity. How could anyone hope to reproduce its impact, its ingenuity, or anything else except the bare bones of plot and character? Why would anyone want to try?

Seeing the new ''Breathless'' doesn't answer these questions; but it does prove the hazards of plunging back in time with little new insight or inspiration. True, the mindless sex scenes and R-rated language have more of the '80s than the '50s or '60s about them. The rest of the show is steeped in misguided nostalgia, though, asking us to cheer a desperado ''hero'' and listen to warmed-over ''existentialist'' lines that don't even seem daring anymore, much less appealing or profound.

As he showed years ago in his own small classic, ''David Holzman's Diary,'' filmmaker Jim McBride can wield a solid and inventive style of his own. He gives his ''Breathless'' a relentless drive and fills it with visual surprises. But it's to little purpose. Like other recent remakes of memorable pictures - ''The Thing'' and ''Cat People,'' for two - the new ''Breathless'' only proves how inimitable its ancestor really is. Man of steel meets modern art

Where does popular art meet high art - if there really is a difference in the first place?

At the Museum of Modern Art, that's where. As if to prove it, the museum is planning a special salute to filmmaker Richard Lester, marking the release of his 19th feature, ''Superman III,'' the latest installment in the splashy saga of the man of steel.

Of course, not all Lester's work has been quite so comic-strippish. The museum tribute will include ''The Knack,'' a visually inventive comedy; ''Petulia,'' an arch but stylish comedy-drama that summed up the late-'60s sensibility for many people; and ''Robin and Marian,'' a bittersweet pastiche of history and heroics.

The salute will take place June 14, the same day a special New York premiere of ''Superman III'' will benefit the museum's film preservation fund. In all, quite a homecoming for the versatile Lester, whose roots are American - he was born in Philadelphia - though he has lived and worked in Britain since 1955. He will introduce the ''Robin and Marian'' screening in person.

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