European Community filmfest - window on many cultures. Catherine Deneuve among stars on hand

The European Community Film Festival here earlier this month was as rich in images of other cultures as some kind of heady jet trip to Europe: six event-filled days and nights, with 15 films from 12 countries. And for the first time this year, the event went on the road to play in two other cities - Chicago where it was seen June 12-18, and Los Angeles, where it winds up tomorrow.

There was high-powered talent on hand at the kick-off luncheon. When French actress Catherine Deneuve glided into the room looking inscrutable and beautiful all at once, as only she and Garbo could do, there was a sudden hush. The face that launched a thousand shipments of Chanel No. 5, not to mention the films of some of the world's greatest directors, has led some to call Deneuve ``the most beautiful woman in the world.''

She had company on the dais that might have upstaged anyone else: Prince Antoine de Ligne of Belgium, and Charlton Heston, president of the American Film Institute, which played host to the event. Both were honorary chairmen of this (the fourth) edition of the festival.

After ambling along as a biennial occasion since 1980, the festival has gone annual this year, in honor of the AFI's 20th anniversary.

Italian director Federico Fellini and his wife, Giulietta Massina, star of ``La Strada,'' were also scheduled to be guests of honor until a last-minute cancellation for personal reasons. Heston, Massina, and Deneuve had all been scheduled to give screenings and seminars. At the luncheon Deneuve sat looking gravely gorgeous. But there was not a hint of the animated actress at the next day's seminar on acting.

Before the seminar, the films of the festival had started, including: the American premi`eres of France's entry, Constantin (``Z'') Costa-Gavras's ``Family Business,'' starring Fanny Ardant; Greece's ``Caravan Serai'' by Tassos Psarras; Portugal's ``Reporter X,'' by Jos'e Nascimento; ``Brel, a Shout,'' Christian Mesnil's documentary on Jacques Brel, and Paul Cammerman's ``The Van Pasemel Family,'' both from Belgium; Kieren Hickey's film ``Short Story: Irish Cinema (1945-1958),'' featuring Orson Welles; and writer-director Bruce Robinson's British entry, ``Withnail and I.''

To see many of these European films is to come away drenched in the culture of the countries they represent. As Ken Wlaschin, AFI's director of exhibition programming, noted of the festival: ``Movies are passports to another country. They are windows onto a way of life. They are mirrors that reflect what is happening to a country. You learn very much more seeing a film from a country than you can in almost every other way.''

This festival turned out to be exciting, though not as extensive or ambitious as, say, the New York Film Festival. Its quality is a bit uneven, but it is generally, to use the Washington word, ``substantive.'' And plans are underway to make future festivals competitive, with the awarding of prizes.

If there was a festival hit, given the disparity of the subject matter and mood of the films, it was the very French ``Family Business,'' Costa-Gavras's riveting and often funny thriller about a family of professional thieves. At times it seems like a dark satire on the cozy intimacies of French family life as the father-safecracker (Johnny Hallyday) and mother-cellist-decorator (Fanny Ardant) rise to an affluent and respectable life financed by crime. But there is an O. Henry ending, as their success piques Mafia interest.

Claudia Cardinale is the star of the impressive but overlong entry from Italy, ``History,'' directed by Luigi Comencini. In this film on the dehumanizing tragedy of World War II, Miss Cardinale gives a poignant performance as a Jewish schoolteacher who becomes an Italian Mother Courage.

In the Greek film ``Caravan Serai'' directed and written by Tassos Psarras, it's the Greek Civil War that leaves villagers homeless, funneled into a squatter's tenement in Thessaloniki.

The most mysterious film in the festival is the Netherlands entry, ``The Pointsman,'' directed by Joseph Stelling, in which a stunning Frenchwoman is snowbound, along with a threatening stationmaster, in a remote train switching-station. As in Bunuel's ``The Exterminating Angel,'' there seems no exit.

Some of the comic relief in the festival comes unexpectedly from Germany, with Manfred Stelzer's gently amusing comedy ``The Chinese Are Coming,'' about the culture clash of Chinese at work in Bavaria. At the screening of his film, Mr. Seltzer, himself a Bavarian, explained that he'd originally planned to make a documentary about a surprising phenomenon: representatives of the People's Republic of China scouring Germany for obsolete factories, buying them, and shipping the dismantled equipment back to China for reassembly. The documentary evolved instead into this bumpy but merry feature film set in an abandoned blanket factory.

There is some rather grim humor in the Spanish entry, ``Pasos Largos'' (Long Strider), a sort of Spanish western about a poacher who turns into a legendary bandit with a bounty on his head. A violent film, cruel as a bullfight, it stars a wonderful actor named Tony Isbert, who looks at times like Gary Cooper in ``A Farewell to Arms.'' But the rugged Andalusian mountains scenery and the the flamenco guitar score are gorgeous.

Equally grisly in its theme is the slick thriller ``Reporter X,'' which deals with a series of murders being investigated by a reporter who is an opium addict. The film is underscored by the performance of an intense, talented actor, Joaquim de Almeida.

The sense of place (London and a rain-blasted country cottage) is less important than the sense of time in the British comedy ``Withnail and I.'' Set in the twilight of the 1960s, it deals with the druggy hedonism of that era. This story focuses on two struggling actors, the aristocratic Withnail, and Marwood, his middle-class roommate. Their era and their friendship come to an end after they spend a grim holiday in the company of Withnail's ostentatiously rich and homosexual uncle.

Among the other films were Luxembourg's ``Gwyncilla: Legend of Dark Ages,'' and Denmark's ``The Dark Side of the Moon.''

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