IN a modest but significant trend, some American filmmakers have been paying increased attention to religious matters lately.
Examples range from a high-profile epic like "Malcolm X" to an offbeat drama like "The Rapture." While they vary widely in their ideas and attitudes, these films give the lie to alarmist critics who claim that American film has been taken over by crass materialism.
A number of movies at this year's Cannes Film Festival indicate that the same tendency is affecting European cinema. A good example is Faraway, So Close! by Wim Wenders, a major German director.
Made as a sequel to his well-liked "Wings of Desire," it again tells the story of an angel who falls to Earth and becomes an ordinary man - not because he rejects his angelic mission, which is to carry the message of love and hope to unhappy people, but because his affection for humanity becomes so great that he can't help embracing it all the way. He takes up his new life with enthusiasm, determined to do good deeds and leave the world a more decent and caring place than he found it.
As in his earlier film on this subject, Mr. Wenders is more interested in spinning a gossamer fantasy than exploring profound issues; still, he seems sincere in his acknowledgment of a spiritual dimension in human experience, and in his hostility toward images and behaviors that chain people to the lower aspects of their existence.
And once more he has assembled a marvelous cast to enact his story. It includes Otto Sander as the angel who becomes a man; Peter Falk and Willem Dafoe as angels with very different personalities; Bruno Ganz as another of their colleagues; Nastassja Kinski as an angel who remains angelic; and rock star Lou Reed as himself.
Despite such an interesting subject and so many talented collaborators, however, it must be said that Wenders has made regrettably little of the opportunities offered by this film.
After a glorious beginning, in which his camera evokes a sublime sense of transcendence and wonder, he steers the movie into more than two hours of unfocused drama, limp comedy, and pointless adventure scenes, spiced with homilies as philosophically rich as the average fortune-cookie slogan. Wenders's impulses are laudable, and the best moments of his new picture are magnificent. But he has not carried the "Wings of Desire" saga to a lofty new stage of development.
More brilliant, if less commercially oriented, is Magnificat, a new Italian film by Pupi Avati, whose recent comedy-drama "The Story of Boys and Girls" found much favor with American audiences. Set at the end of the 10th century, "Magnificat" has little in the way of a story but portrays a few days in the life of a small village dominated by the traditions of the Roman Catholic Church and the power of a feudal lord who controls everyone and everything in sight.
The film's most extraordinary quality is its ability to evoke the amazing contradictions of medieval life, in which a single set of beliefs and social rules is the source of both the grim horrors perpetrated by the local executioner and the consoling beauties offered by church rituals and disciplines.
Weaving his tapestry of daily life with impressive simplicity and economy, Mr. Avati offers an utterly convincing depiction of a bygone time while subtly suggesting that neither its brutal superstitions nor its capacities for childlike faith and joy have been entirely left behind by our own era.