Strong Female Roles Add Power

In a change from male-focused movies, two recent film stories feature admirable women. FILM: REVIEW

HOLLYWOOD is notorious for giving its second-best roles to women, and the situation clearly hasn't changed when a superficial romp like ``Postcards From the Edge'' represents the best a major studio can come up with in exploring women's issues. Filmmakers often follow the same pattern in other parts of the world, reserving their most substantial opportunities for male performers and characters. So it's a special pleasure to find strong, admirable women at the heart of two new movies due soon in American theaters - pictures made far from Hollywood, but universal in their themes and richly accessible in their styles. Both were featured in the recent Toronto Festival of Festivals, and then traveled to the New York Film Festival.

The Nasty Girl, a West German film directed by Michael Verhoeven, is named after Sonja, its young heroine. She earns that ``nasty'' label when she innocently enters an essay competition. The problem isn't her literary ambition but rather the topic she decides to write about: ``My Town During the Third Reich.''

Sonja already has a reputation as her school's best writer. For some reason, though, the local grown-ups aren't eager to help her investigate this particular subject. Hems and haws greet her requests for information, and the authorities withhold city and church records from her.

Why? She doesn't learn the specifics until years later, when she's a grown woman with children of her own - and with a lingering curiosity about just what happened in her ordinary Bavarian town during the Nazi era. She continues her inquiry, running up against more concerted opposition from townspeople who obviously have plenty to hide.

Never have the themes of Nazism and the Holocaust been treated with more irony and mordant humor than Mr. Verhoeven gives them here; yet he doesn't forget the deadly seriousness of his subject, or the continuing importance of remembering and condemning the horrors of the Third Reich. One of the film's ringing achievements is to bring new immediacy to this subject through the use of humor, aimed not only at human foibles but also at earlier Holocaust films, which Verhoeven subtly satirizes - filling the backgrounds with projected images in the manner of Hans-J"urgen Syberberg, for instance, and peppering the action with Marcel Ophuls-type interviews.

These details will be valued most by people familiar with the long tradition of films on the Nazi era, but all audiences can appreciate the energy and inventiveness they give Verhoeven's movie. He told me during last spring's Cannes film festival that he wanted to avoid the prettiness and technical slickness that mark so many recent productions, and this decision has much to do with the movie's surprising impact. It also helped Verhoeven (who isn't related to Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven, of ``Robocop'' fame) earn the Berlin Film Festival's best-director award.

Equally worth celebrating is the rollicking performance of Lena Stolze as the ``nasty'' heroine, whom she plays all the way from girlhood to motherhood, and Axel de Roche's clever cinematography. ``The Nasty Girl'' is uncommonly smart, bitingly dramatic, and hilariously funny. It deserves the international acclaim it has already started to reap.

THE film An Angel at My Table comes from New Zealander Jane Campion, whose ``Sweetie'' was a much-discussed success with American audiences last year. Her new movie is based on autobiographical works by New Zealand author Janet Frame, whose life has included the best and worst of experiences - from the exhilaration of literary creation and renown to the despair of being labeled mentally ill (and almost subjected to crippling psychosurgery) by a society whose narrow definition of ``normal'' can be crippling and confining to a truly creative spirit.

``Sweetie,'' which also took on the subject of psychological problems, was best when it depicted visionary dreams with surprising clarity in its early scenes; it grew weaker when Ms. Campion moved the focus directly to a mentally ill person without generating a clear-cut sense of empathy and compassion.

``An Angel at My Table'' falls into no such trap. Its treatment of Ms. Frame is insightful and sympathetic, capturing her joys and sorrows with unfailing delicacy. Only at the last moment does the movie let down a bit, allowing the mood to become a little coy. This happens after some two-and-a-half hours of first-rate storytelling, however, and amounts to a momentary lapse rather than a full-fledged flaw.

The movie is expertly made, with special credit going to the three actresses who play the heroine at different stages of her life: Alexian Keogh as a child, Karen Ferguson as a teenager, and Kerry Fox as a young woman. Besides suggesting that New Zealand is a treasure trove of magnetic red-haired actresses, they give the film touches of emotional depth that couldn't be faked by lesser talents. The movie is also exquisitely shot by cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh and director Campion, who told me recently that she still relies heavily on her background as a painter.

``An Angel at My Table'' was made as a three-part miniseries for New Zealand television, and Campion has adapted it into a continuous 150-minute drama for its theatrical release; its real-life heroine endorsed and cooperated with the enterprise from the beginning. It is a superbly crafted and endlessly involving movie. Nobody concerned with the special challenges faced by creative women - or with the human condition as a whole, for that matter - should even think of missing it.

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