Festival Unveils Stellar Crop of Art Films

`New Directors/New Films' spotlights work of bold auteurs from 18 countries

THE annual New Directors/New Films series, presented at the Museum of Modern Art in collaboration with the Film Society of Lincoln Center, is often considered the ``second festival'' of this movie-conscious city.

It carries less prestige than the New York Film Festival, which attracts international attention every fall. But connoisseurs know that ND/NF has irreplaceable value all its own - since its mandate is to pass deliberately over the latest work by major auteurs, instead discovering fresh surprises from talents who might be tomorrow's directorial superstars.

On these terms, its track record is excellent. Patrons of ND/NF have been the first on their block to see such art-movie hits as ``She's Gotta Have It'' and ``My Life as a Dog.'' Last year alone saw the unveiling of such pictures as Sally Potter's audacious ``Orlando,'' which went on to widespread acclaim, and Daniel Bergman's eloquent ``Sunday's Children,'' soon to have its American theatrical premiere.

Again this year, the ND/NF slate includes several films clearly destined for applause far beyond the museum and festival circuit. One of the most striking is the opening-night attraction, The Girl in the Watermelon, which has a freshness and liveliness that outshine nearly everything Hollywood has pitched at us lately.

The title character is Samantha, a 17-year-old with a problem: She never knew her father, and her mother is oddly stingy with details about this mysterious parent. Armed with clues from her mom's old diaries, Samantha hits the streets of New York on a search for her dad - only to find more than one candidate for the position, each more unexpected than the last.

``The Girl in the Watermelon'' has a catchy and surprising story, but what makes it glow on screen is Sergio Castilla's sprightly directorial style. The movie is enriched by imaginative shots, energized by dynamic editing, and bathed in colors even bolder than its Latin-spiced music score.

The pace lets down for a while in the movie's last half hour, which could have used some judicious trimming; this quibble aside, the picture is a pleasure to behold. The selection committee of ND/NF stretched its standards by deeming Castilla a new director, since this native Chilean has made several Latin American and European movies. But three cheers for bending the rules when the result is so enticing.

A very different mood pervades Ivan and Abraham, directed by Yolande Zauberman, the daughter of Polish Jews who endured first-hand experiences of Nazi terror. Set in a Polish village during the 1930s, her film centers on a nine-year-old Jewish boy and his closest friend, a 14-year-old gentile who lives with a Jewish family as an apprentice.

The adventures of these youngsters begin when the proprietor of their village, an irresponsible prince, stirs up anti-Semitic sentiment by abandoning his estate and leaving the townspeople prey to severe financial troubles. Unhappy with the prospects awaiting them in their devastated community, the boys flee to the countryside, where they encounter new and old acquaintances, including Abraham's daringly independent sister and her lover, a man who has earned the suspicion of their village by daring to be a Communist.

Filmed in black-and-white, ``Ivan and Abraham'' has strong performances and imaginative music that lends an extra measure of dark-toned excitement to several of its episodes. While its storytelling strategies aren't always successful, it provides a poignant reminder of not-so-distant events, and paints an evocative portrait of the region where it was made - largely in Ukraine, in a Jewish town that has survived from the prewar period. The film has been acquired for distribution by New Yorker Films, and has its theatrical opening shortly after its ND/NF screenings.

Eastern Europe is also the setting of Child Murders, which takes true events as the basis for its tale of a 12-year-old boy whose constant companions are an ailing grandmother and a pregnant Gypsy girl. Directed by Hungarian filmmaker Ildiko Szabo, this ambitious drama is sometimes too arty for its own good, punctuating its narrative with cinematic flourishes (most notably a conspicuous use of slow motion) that seem extraneous to its style and substance. It has moments of poetic power, however, and marks Szabo as a promising talent.

On a somewhat lighter note, Bhaji on the Beach takes its title from a snack food often served by Indian restaurants in England, where the movie takes place. The main characters are British-Asian women who go on a pleasure trip to a seaside town. This turns into great fun for some of the participants, but brings difficulty to others when they find that their domestic problems won't stay neatly behind until the excursion is over.

Although the story begins on an overfamiliar note, with fantasy sequences and household squabbles that have little new to say, ``Bhaji on the Beach'' picks up surprising momentum once its heroines board the bus to Blackpool, taking with them such troubles as an unwanted pregnancy and anxieties over an estranged husband. The climax and conclusion of the story are especially effective, with powerful acting and offbeat cinematic work.

Directed by Gurinder Chadha, a native Kenyan who has lived in Britain most of her life, the movie is due for a mid-April theatrical debut thanks to First Look Pictures.

Although many films on the ND/NF slate have children or teenagers as their focus, others turn in markedly different directions.

If a generalization can be made about the program as a whole, it's that many of this year's new directors have moved away from the personal concerns that usually propel independent cinema, choosing instead to try their hands at established genres ranging from the musical to the horror film - as Wendy Keys, a member of the festival's selection committee, noted when I asked her for an overview of the series.

The program is nothing if not diversified, embracing 23 programs from 18 countries and showing that ND/NF remains committed to its important mission of ferreting out hitherto unknown screen talents.

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