FOR years now, it has been clear that Martin Scorsese is the foremost American filmmaker of his generation.
If this endorsement of his talent needs a qualification, it's that Scorsese's abilities have shown most powerfully in his most physically bruising films, from ``Mean Streets'' and ``Taxi Driver'' to ``Raging Bull'' and ``GoodFellas.'' Pictures with more introspective styles or themes, such as ``The King of Comedy'' and ``The Last Temptation of Christ,'' have been less successful, critically and commercially.
So it's a pleasure to report that Scorsese's new movie, ``The Age of Innocence,'' marks a stunning new advance in his already remarkable career. Thoughtful and reflective, it stands with the most exquisitely crafted films in recent memory, joining eloquently conceived images to an uncommonly literate screenplay.
This doesn't mean it's a perfect movie. At times its rhythms bog down in conventional patterns and its understatement crosses the line into languor.
But such flaws are few and scattered. Not often has an established filmmaker taken such a dramatic turn in mid-career, mastering a new set of challenges so quickly and thoroughly.
``The Age of Innocence'' takes its story from Edith Wharton's finely wrought novel, which appeared in 1920 and made her the first woman to receive a Pulitzer Prize for literature. The book is a satire, aiming to expose and deflate the pretensions, inhibitions, and hypocrisies of New York society in the pre-World War I era.
It's a refined and sympathetic satire, however, making its points with such painstaking subtlety that one responds to its most energetic sallies with rueful smiles rather than derisive laughter. Its genuine, self-assured dignity throws into comic relief the forced, overtaxed dignity of the characters it portrays with a mixture of affection, approbation, and irony.
It is a work of deservedly high repute, in short, and only a filmmaker of unusual maturity would think of bringing it to the screen at a time when Hollywood embraces very different values in most of its undertakings.
The main characters of ``The Age of Innocence'' are Newland Archer, a young man of good family and progressive views; May Welland, his attractive fiancee; and Ellen Olenska, a cousin of May's who has returned to New York after an unhappy marriage with a European count.
Ellen's somewhat mysterious history has rendered her vaguely unacceptable to her New York neighbors, who - seeing her through the veil of their own proprieties, prejudices, and utter lack of imagination - feel there must be something wrong with a person who has wandered outside their gaze into such exotic territory.
Newland, self-styled liberal that he is, leaps to the lady's defense. Unfortunately, he leaps so hard that he falls in love with her. This rather complicates his feelings toward May and their wedding plans. It also raises the question of whether he will stand up for individual freedom by acknowledging Ellen as his beloved or cave in to society's expectations by disregarding mere passion and fulfilling his obligations to May like a well-bred fellow.
A great deal of this story takes place not in the observable world of action and incident, but in the invisible minds and hearts of the major characters. Scorsese brings it visually alive through two strategies.
One is to maximize the efforts of his fine cast by framing their all-important dialogues in immaculately arranged settings that support and enhance the emotions evoked by the carefully written screenplay.
The other is to bring key resources of motion-picture artistry into open and visible display, in a manner quite rare for a commercial film. Aside from adventure and fantasy pictures, most movies downplay their specifically cinematic qualities in order to absorb us in the actions and emotions of the characters.
By contrast, Scorsese revels in the stuff of cinema, blending the realism of his settings and performances - which are superbly authentic throughout the film - with gorgeous displays of purely filmic virtuosity. The setting of a table, the lighting of a cigar, the view from a theater box may be shown through half-a-dozen different shots, edited into a quick sequence that's the visual equivalent of a musical trill or melisma.
Just as the true intelligence of Wharton's prose ironically sets off the rigid thinking of her characters, the expressive artifice of Scorsese's filmmaking contrasts richly with the stiff artificiality of the society he's studying.
Add the sumptuousness of his lighting, and the unfailing rightness of his camera placements, and you have a veritable feast for the eyes.
Scorsese did not make ``The Age of Innocence'' alone, of course, and his collaborators - beginning with Jay Cocks, who wrote the screenplay with him - deserve full praise.
Daniel Day-Lewis does his finest work in ages as Newland, suggesting more with an inflection of the voice or a turn of the eye than many actors can accomplish with their whole bodies. While the women are somewhat less impressive, Michelle Pfeiffer shows unexpected depth as the countess, and Winona Ryder rises touchingly to the occasion when the climax of the story allows her to break away from the earlier confines of her character. Also noteworthy is Miriam Margolyes, who almost steals the show as Mrs. Mingott, a feisty dowager.
Michael Ballhaus did the dazzling cinematography, which - like other elements of the picture - sometimes recalls ``The Magnificent Ambersons'' and is almost too lovely for its own good. Thelma Schoonmaker, a Scorsese regular, did the utterly astonishing film editing. Dante Ferretti designed the production. Elmer Bernstein, one of Hollywood's greatest composers, wrote the steadily effective score. Bravo to all.
* ``The Age of Innocence'' has a PG rating. It deals with adult themes and has some mildly vulgar language.