GARY BENNETT, the writer and director of "Rain Without Thunder," has followed an unusual pathway to the filmmaking world.
Although he took film-related courses in college, according to production information for his new movie, he majored in political science and later received graduate degrees in law and social welfare. But his interest in cinema stayed with him, and while practicing copyright and business law in New York he went to filmmaking courses in his spare time. Over the past few years, he has written and directed three short movies and helped run a theater and television studio.
The release of "Rain Without Thunder," a full-length picture with an impressive cast, makes Mr. Bennett an auteur at last - but hardly a conventional one, since this is hardly a conventional film.
For one thing, it tackles the sort of controversial subject - the moral and constitutional debate over abortion rights - that movies with box-office hopes normally do their best to avoid. For another, it has an offbeat structure that some spectators will find invigorating but others will find peculiar or even dull. Virtually the whole story is presented through a series of interviews with fictional characters, who discuss their experiences and ideas but rarely engage in anything resembling direct action on the screen.
The central characters of the story, which takes place in the year 2042, are a mother and daughter who have been convicted of murder under the Unborn Child Kidnapping Act, a law meant to keep wealthy women from evading anti-abortion laws by going to other countries. Now in a New York prison, the women discuss their case with a reporter who also interviews a number of other people involved with the abortion issue, from law-enforcement officials to civil-rights activists.
Although the message of "Rain Without Thunder" supports women's rights and reproductive freedom, Bennett's screenplay is wide-ranging enough to present different perspectives on the topics it raises, and some of them are surprising.
It suggests, for instance, that a statute like the "fetal kidnapping" law might be passed in the future not as a right-wing fiat, but as a civil-rights measure with wide support - since it could claim to promote equality by eliminating an option (the ability to travel to countries where abortion is legal) that is not available to poor and disadvantaged women.
Also interesting is the way certain performances in "Rain Without Thunder" give a compelling glow not only to specific characters but to the ideas those characters espouse.
The brilliant actor Austin Pendleton, who plays an outspoken Roman Catholic priest, is the best example of this. His acting is so vividly and passionately real that his character's anti-abortion views take on a resonance as absorbing and memorable as anything else in the movie, even though the film's own opinions are very different.
Others in the cast include Jeff Daniels as the attorney who lost the case that landed the "kidnappers" in jail; Frederic Forrest as the warden of the "facility for defendant mothers" where they are incarcerated; Linda Hunt as the leader of a feminist organization that's too moderate to press for abortion rights; Graham Greene as a scholar who argues that the very notion of a women's movement is a contradiction in terms; and Betty Buckley as the mother who helped her daughter seek the abortion that touche d off so many unforeseen events.
`RAIN Without Thunder" has problems that even this excellent cast can't overcome. Its visual style seems static next to the liveliness of its verbal content, and its determination to touch a whole spectrum of social issues - including racism, gender discrimination, and the need for penal reform - makes it too ambitious for its talking-head format to handle comfortably.
It is a thoughtful movie, though, and it will set audiences thinking even if it changes few people's minds. Whether one is stimulated or fatigued by its torrent of words, it certainly can't be accused of selling out its ideas for the sake of selling tickets, as so many films today are willing to do.
*`Rain Without Thunder' is rated PG-13 for its basic theme. It contains graphic discussions of abortion and related issues, and includes unpleasant images of prison life as well as a disturbing dream sequence.