Selectivity Is the Word at Telluride

Colorado mountain town's film festival searches out movies with unusual visions. CINEMA

FRENCH actor Gerard Depardieu smiled at the audience in the Sheridan Opera House during the 17th Telluride Film Festival's opening night and said, ``I wish every festival looked like Telluride. I understand why they looked for gold here. I have found great heart and warmth.'' What he meant, of course, is that the mountain environment is spectacularly beautiful, and the intimate atmosphere of this particularly gracious little town fosters easy interaction among festivalgoers - whether they are actors, directors, assorted show-biz professionals, or just film buffs here to wallow in movie after movie over Labor Day weekend.

The festival itself glories in its peculiar texture. Larger film festivals may offer many more films, but Telluride's highly selective programming searches out the unusual vision, the work of art that may offer some new insight into a particular culture. As many years as I have attended, I have always felt that Telluride's excellence lies in this selectivity: Inevitably, I would learn something new about the world. The themes that emerge in Telluride invariably crop up again and again throughout my filmgoing year.

The United States premi`ere of French director Jean-Paul Rappeneau's ``Cyrano de Bergerac,'' based on Edmund Rostand's heroic verse comedy (circa 1898), stars Mr. Depardieu as the poet-soldier whose outsized nose led him into many a duel of honor. Mr. Rappaneau retains the verse in French, and the real joy of this picture lies in its luscious romanticism played for realism. Depardieu's vulnerable hero, brave in battle, fearful in love, lumbers realistically through swordplay and utters the verse as if it were daily conversation. Marvelous details throughout the movie evoke both the period and the humanity of the hero in ways Rostand never conceived.

BRITISH director Beeban Kidron's ``Antonia and Jane,'' an offbeat comedy, delighted audiences here with its fresh, unsentimental, funny, and utterly forgiving look at a friendship between two women of vastly different temperments. Ms. Kidron's small-scaled production is really a history of an affection imperfectly realized, but nevertheless real and durable.

Both ``The Nasty Girl,'' by German director Michael Verhoeven, and ``The Long Walk Home,'' by US director Richard Pearce, take up the issue of what Mr. Verhoeven calls ``civil courage'' - moral courage for the sake of (and sometimes in spite of) the whole community. ``The Nasty Girl,'' based on a true story, concerns a young woman's attempt to find out how her small Bavarian town came through the Nazi era. Meeting with every kind of bureaucratic obstacle, Sonja sues for access to the town files. Though she was once the darling of the town, everyone turns against her as she uncovers some ugly facts about local persecution of Jews.

Verhoeven eschews Hollywood realism in his acidic satire of hypocrisy. Young Sonja tells her own story with sweet irony beginning in early childhood. Instead of natural settings, (a library, a living room, a newspaper office), Verhoeven often uses still slides for backdrops. Sonja, for example, enters a ``library'' which is only a black and white slide of a library. The effect, though never pretentious, is to remind the viewer that he or she is watching a movie. Verhoeven doesn't want to manipulate our emotions, he wants us to think clearly about the girl's course of action. Though her motivations are complex, we can't dismiss them as willful.

The acting is so fine, the dialogue so funny, the cinematography and art design so fresh, the direction so ingenious, and the intention so honorable that ``Nasty Girl'' may turn out to be one of the most significant pictures of the year.

Director Pearce's modest and compelling ``The Long Walk Home'' covers some of the same ground, though without pessimism. Based on actual events and people, Researched and written by John Cork, a young man just out of film school, the film is set during the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott of 1955 when all the black citizens of that city, tired of being forced to sit in the back of buses, refused to ride. They were tired of the humiliation of being forced to the back of the bus, and inspired by religious faith, they chose to walk to work until the law was changed. Whoopi Goldberg plays Odessa, the maid in a middle-class home, and Sissy Spacek her spoiled employer.

As the maid endures the strain of the boycott, the employer gradually begins to recognize her humanity. In the maid's unassuming valiance lies a rebuke that troubles and confuses the white lady. Spacek's character gradually changes, and her meek contribution to the boycott brings down the wrath of her husband and friends.

Pearce offers an alternate view of history, how it may be shifted sometimes by the most modest acts of courage, how that which is honorable and good may spread from one individual to another. ``The Long Walk Home'' follows in the tradition of a film like ``Places in the Heart,'' though the hero in this case is most appropriately a black woman.

At the other extreme of human behavior lie films like Abel Ferrara's ``King of New York,'' starring Christopher Walken, Paul Schrader's ``The Comfort of Strangers,'' and Barbet Schroeder's ``Reversal of Fortune.'' ``King of New York'' is a stylish gangster picture in the classic tradition: the story of the rise of a gangster over the bodies of his competitors, followed by his decline at the expense of all his friends. Though nearly every scene includes gratuitous gore, the formula established in the 1930s in Hollywood remains the same. Walken is superb in a thankless role.

Walken may be making a career out of perverse criminal types, because Mr. Schrader has cast him in ``The Comfort of Strangers'' as a sinister Italian gentleman with designs on a young English couple vacationing in Venice. The picture disturbs without bringing any real understanding to bear on sexual perversity. There is a moral here, but it gets lost in all the self-indulgent muck.

Less ambitious, but far more satisfying is ``Reversal of Fortune.'' Jeremy Irons stars as Klaus von B"ulow and Ron Silver as the brilliant lawyer who defended him against attempted murder charges. Told from the point of view of Klaus's comatose wife (brilliantly played by Glenn Close), the film is a blackly comic mystery. At the heart of the story lies the idealistic lawyer's defense of the judicial system, which, we are assured, sometimes fails. The guilty go free and the innocent suffer. Entertaining and stylish, Though the film lacks substance, each performance is as fascinating and intricate as a Swiss watch.

THE Telluride Film Festival has a long history of commitment to great Soviet cinema. One poignant film, ``Freeze - Die - Come to Life,'' by Naum Kleiman, could only have been made today. Autobiographical in content, it concerns the lives of two children living in extreme poverty in a small mining town in the Soviet far east. The oppressive life of the miners and the oppression of prisoners under Stalin is seen as nearly identical.

It is not possible to see every film in the festival, and the only real frustration lies in having to choose among so many tantalizing offerings. There are disappointments, but even they raise important issues requiring investigation. Because everything here is directed toward the sheer enjoyment and discussion of film, one really can't go wrong, no matter what one sees.

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