THE mark of a great film festival lies, for me, in how much it stimulates thoughtful investigation into the human condition. Colorado's Telluride Film Festival always does this for the willing observer. In the most recent festival held earlier this month, however, it proved more difficult, because a number of the films selected from around the world dealt with violent crime and assorted other sorrows, none seeming to offer pathways out of humanity's suffering. Some of the images even ignited controversy and troubled many viewers.
The problem of violence in contemporary movies, because linked to the power of the moving image, is as complex an issue as it is serious. Movies tend to reflect the values and conditions of their times. Paradoxically, they also tend to influence the societies from which they come.
But there is great need today to discern between the merely exploitive and that which is revealing about contemporary society. The 16th-annual festival here, as always, dealt in revelations. And fortunately, a few of the films celebrated unselfish love and relieved the taxing questions posed by various directors. It was, for example, consoling to see ``Nuovo Cinema Paradiso'' by Italian director Giuseppe Tornatore - to be released in the United States this winter. Without question, it was the most joyous film of the festival. In it, a successful filmmaker remembers his childhood in Sicily where the only father figure he has ever known was the local projectionist at the one movie palace in town.
Selfless love surfaces here as a saving force in an individual's life. The story drags on a bit, and the director squeezes sentiment out by the bucketful. But the acting is superb, the sentiments sound, and the storytelling engaging.
Yet it was necessary to endure Peter Greenaway's ``The Cook the Thief His Wife and Her Lover,'' which explicitly exposes violence toward women and children - as well as the general apathy of society toward mounting evil. Mr. Greenaway's masterful technique assaults the viewer, requiring a vigorous confrontation with ugly things. His film ultimately fails only because its infernal vision offers no glimpse of anything beyond itself. As in many of the other festival offerings, the meaning of ``Cook'' resides with us as viewers. Because Greenaway is so unrelenting in taking up the problem of evil ignored, the viewer cannot ignore it.
The films written by Dennis Potter likewise require vigorous confrontation with the problems of our time. His directorial debut, ``Blue Hills Remembered,'' which received its American premi`ere at Telluride, presents a day in the lives of seven children late in World War II. The odd thing about the film is that adult actors take the children's roles.
As goofy as the premise sounds, the movie works because it reveals as much about the infantile nature of social injustice and rejection of individual responsibility as it does the destructive effects of child abuse and adult indifference. Both Greenaway and Potter were honored with tributes at the festival.
The third tribute went to Japan's Shohei Imamura, whose ``Black Rain'' also received its US premi`ere at Telluride. In this deeply moving tale, an innocent family suffers the aftermath of the atom bombing of Hiroshima. Elegant in somber black and white, the film pleads for peace. Harrowing scenes find relief only in the amazing lovingkindness of the three central characters, whose selfless concern for each other is expressed in patience and endurance.
Mr. Imamura said in an interview that there are plenty of reasons to despair of mankind if you look for them, but he is himself an optimist. ``I am always hopeful. Possibly human beings will become aware of what is necessary to save themselves,'' he remarked. What is necessary, he indicated, is the kind of magnanimous relatedness among people expressed by the family in ``Black Rain.''
That beneficent kindness is the only thread of light running through his otherwise bleak tale.
British director Jim Sheridan's new film tackles another difficult subject and interjects a passionate affirmation of life and of loving patience as well. ``My Left Foot'' tells the story of Christy Brown. Despite cerebral palsy, Mr. Brown surprised his enormous family and the whole world with his talent as painter and author. Without sentimentalizing Brown's difficult life or his short temper, Sheridan reveals the resolve of Brown's mother and siblings that made the artist's life a triumph.