Tracking Future Winners

Watching movies gather momentum from one festival to another helps in sifting many entries. TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL

THE Festival of Festivals, as this 15-year-old film event unmodestly calls itself, has taken its place with the world's major showcases - the Cannes, Berlin, and New York filmfests - for international cinema. The current edition, continuing through Saturday, includes no fewer than 215 full-length movies from 44 countries, not to mention 76 shorts and documentaries. Special programs range from an overview of Portuguese cinema to a retrospective on ``The Dawn of Sound'' and a series of avant-garde provocateurs.

How to sort through so much cinema? There's no sure way to see all the winners and dodge all the losers, especially with pictures that are fresh from the lab and haven't been publicly shown before. But one approach is to observe which movies have been gathering momentum from one festival to another, over the past few months - and which have been well-enough received to warrant imminent premi`eres in the United States, which remains the most important target (financially and critically) for most productions.

Toronto's ``gala'' presentations - screenings with extra fanfare, calling attention to particularly promising films - give noteworthy clues to what the movie world considers important just now. This year's most loudly trumpeted galas featured three films, spanning a fairly large portion of the cinematic spectrum.

Clint Eastwood's colorful ``White Hunter, Black heart'' from the US, is a Hollywood drama with a controversial edge; Jean-Paul Rappeneau's swashbuckling ``Cyrano de Bergerac,'' from France, energetically revisits a classic tale; and Ryszard Bugajski's stark ``The Interrogation,'' from Poland, reminds us why Eastern Europe has been in the news cinematically as well as politically in recent times. All these pictures have been wending their way through the festival circuit for several months, and the fact that all are prominently featured here is a sign of the respect they've earned from international observers. Taking advantage of this, at least two of them - the Eastwood and Bugajski films - are due in American theaters momentarily.

Reporting on ``White Hunter, Black Heart,'' from Cannes last spring, I mentioned the controversy around it - or rather around Mr. Eastwood's performance, which seems to make or break the movie for most spectators. There's no more consensus in September than there was last May about this. Accordingly, the picture may open strongly in the US, thanks to loyal Eastwood fans, along with people who want to make up their own minds about his work. Or it may fizzle out immediately, if opening-day reviews stress the peculiarities rather than the complexities of the situation.

The movie is a partly fictional account of the making of ``The African Queen,'' the 1951 adventure classic with Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn as a mismatched couple on a harrowing African journey. Eastwood plays a thinly disguised version of John Huston, director of ``the African Queen,'' and therein lies the controversy. It's probably impossible for anyone to portray Mr. Huston convincingly, since he was an actor himself, with a highly unusual on-screen personality. It's twice as unlikely that the job could be pulled off by Eastwood, an actor of narrow range who's best known for violent action films.

And sure enough, Eastwood's performance seems unwieldy and self-conscious in some respects, leading many people to give up on ``White Hunter'' after the first few minutes.

But they miss the point, I think. ``White Hunter, Black Heart'' is not about Eastwood pretending to be Huston. Rather, it's about Huston himself and how he considered his off-screen image (as bon-vivant and adventurer) at least as important as his film accomplishments. To understand the movie, one should remember Oscar Wilde's famous statement that he put his talent into his art, his genius into his life. John Wilson, the Huston character in ``White Hunter,'' is supposed to be filming a movie in Africa, but what takes most of his time (and whatever genius he can muster) is a misbegotten attempt to become more of a hunter, adventurer, and daredevil than he'll ever know how to be.

Eastwood's performance is a built-in metaphor for Wilson's ungainly effort to be what he isn't. Seen in this light, it's a daring and moving piece of work. And so, despite flaws along the way, is the movie as a whole, which was directed by Eastwood himself.

An attention-grabbing performance also dominates ``The Interrogation,'' which was banned in its native Poland in 1982 because of its ferocious attack on Stalinist repression. It was finally taken off the shelf last year, for a belated Polish premi`ere and a trip to the Cannes festival, where star Krystyna Janda won the best-actress prize for her portrayal of an apolitical cabaret singer who undergoes physical and mental torture after being mistakenly arrested. The film centers almost obsessively on her performance, which wakens the story for a minority of spectators who find her work unsubtle and overwrought. For the multitude of Janda admirers, however, her keenly energized presence lends the movie a depth and humanity it might otherwise have lacked. She and Mr. Bugajski make a formidable team, and one hopes their partnership will continue.

I wish the new French version of ``Cyrano de Bergerac'' were similarly bold. Gerard Depardieu is marvelous in the title role, bringing just the right blend of pathos and panache. But the 19th-century classic by Edmund Rostand is so familiar by now - from Steve Martin's popular ``Roxanne,'' among countless other versions - that one heroic performance isn't enough to make it fresh again; and director Rappeneau's treatment of it is regrettably unoriginal, although well-meaning and sincere.

In all, the level of achievement here has been high enough to qualify 1990 as a solid cinematic year - a judgment that seems more fully justified now than it did last spring, when the Cannes lineup seemed a bit ragged around the edges. The last portion of the festival may bring surprises, but as of this writing, the Festival of Festivals has indeed seemed festive.

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