`CALENDAR,'' the new movie by Canadian director Atom Egoyan, is an offbeat film with an unusual history.
A filmmaker of great talent and spirit, Egoyan earned respect in the cinema community with such early works as ``Speaking Parts'' and ``Family Viewing,'' which signal their interest in reflexivity - filmmaking that reflects on its own procedures and preoccupations - right from their titles.
His career received an important boost when ``The Adjuster,'' a surrealistic fable about an insurance agent who gets involved in the lives of his clients, drew enthusiastic applause at the Cannes and New York film festivals.
That picture also thrilled judges at the Moscow Film Festival, where it won a major prize carrying a cash award - and a good deal of confusion, as Egoyan explained during a New York visit a few months ago.
The money was awarded to help finance his next movie, on the condition that it be shot within the Soviet Union's borders. Egoyan was happy to comply with this stipulation, since he was eager to make a film in Armenia, the land of his ancestors. No sooner did he begin planning his Armenian project, however, than the Soviet Union fell apart and Armenia became an independent nation.
This brought obvious complications to the geographical aspect of Egoyan's prize, and indeed, it threw a substantial shadow over the likelihood that he'd receive his million-ruble check in the first place - awarded to him, after all, by a government that no longer existed.
While a less adventurous artist might have written off the situation as a lost cause at this point, Egoyan was determined to proceed with his movie. He switched from a 35mm production setup - standard for feature films, but expensive - to a cheaper and more flexible 16mm operation. He also decided to limit his story to three major characters, and to play one of them himself, even though his cinematic skills lie in writing and directing rather than acting.
Forging ahead on this low-budget basis, he completed ``Calendar'' despite the odds, making up in talent and tenacity what he lacked in money and resources. On top of this, he has now succeeded in finding a commercial release for what might have seemed a specialized art movie destined for festivals and museums rather than conventional theaters. He and his distributor, Zeitgeist Films, deserve congratulations for their faith in this small-scale but captivating movie, which merits as wide an audience as any of the Hollywood pictures on the current scene.
THE story of ``Calendar'' centers on a young Canadian photographer, played by Egoyan, who's visiting Armenia to take pictures of historic church buildings for a calendar manufacturer. Accompanying him is his wife, who documents the trip with a video camera, and a local guide who seems as interested in his employer's spouse as in the interminable series of churches on their itinerary.
The movie alternates footage of their journey, seen through photos and videotapes made along the way, with later scenes in which the photographer tries to understand what's gone wrong with his marriage, his project, and a whole portion of his life.
``Calendar'' is as quirky as Egoyan's earlier films, joining a basically conventional story (a love triangle, pure and simple) with a deliberately unconventional structure and an ironic atmosphere. The combination fails to work at times, especially in a subplot involving the photographer's relationships with women after his Armenian excursion has ended.
Still, most of ``Calendar'' is engaging and ingratiating, telling a poignantly amusing tale through images of unusual clarity, economy, and loveliness. A million rubles couldn't have made it more lively or entertaining.
* ``Calendar'' is unrated. It contains allusions to sex and extramarital involvements.