January and February are usually lean months for moviegoers. The onslaught of year-end blockbusters is over - rushed onto screens before Dec. 31 to qualify for award competitions - and the next major blitz won't take place until warm weather and vacations boost the chances for long box-office lines.
This slack period for mainstream fare is a window of opportunity for more offbeat pictures, however. The early weeks of a new year often see a modest but steady stream of releases from overseas and independent distributors who are delighted to put their products on the market while the giant studios are snoozing.
Most of these low-profile productions test their viability in New York theaters first, then make their way to other locations if critics and audiences receive them favorably. The most successful efforts will be around for months, never dominating the profitability charts but pleasing a wide range of discriminating viewers. This month has brought several such pictures to Manhattan screens, and three of them - directed by major European auteurs - deserve lavish praise.
``Mamma Roma,'' directed by the late Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, was made in 1962 but has never played in American theaters until now. This lapse of time is inexplicable, given the remarkable power of the movie and the fact that it stars Anna Magnani, one of Italy's most internationally popular actresses.
Whatever the reason for its long sojourn on the shelves of some obscure vault, its arrival at Film Forum is cause for celebration. It's a stirring drama that reaffirms Magnani's gifts while shedding new light on the early stages of Pasolini's career.
The title character is a prostitute who gives up her profession and moves to a run-down neighborhood of Rome where she hopes to make a decent life for herself and her son. She opens a food stand, makes new acquaintances, and settles down to watch over young Ettore, a feisty adolescent who's as likely to get into mischief as she was at his age. Much of the film is marked by humor, heartiness, and respect for the earthy details of working-class life. Things turn darker when Mamma Roma's former pimp arrives on the scene, and tragic when Ettore finds himself in dangerous trouble.
The plot and characters of ``Mamma Roma'' are too familiar to be very surprising, as Pasolini seemed to recognize a few years later when he admitted the ``unforgivable'' presence of repetition in this movie, which was only the second feature film he had ever directed.
Nonetheless, two assets bring the picture to vivid life. One is Magnani's bravura performance, marked by a superbly nuanced sense of emotional energy. The other is Pasolini's sensitive directing, which inflects the kitchen-sink naturalism of Neo-realist cinema with a complex mixture of poetic elements. These elements reflect his longtime (and paradoxical) commitments to Marxist protest, Christian compassion, and the sensuous pleasure of aesthetics for their own sake. This early drama stands with his finest work.
Jean-Luc Godard, probably the greatest filmmaker active in Europe today, has been challenging the lazy patterns of commercial cinema ever since his first full-length movie, ``Breathless,'' launched the influential New Wave movement 3-1/2 decades ago. As bold and experimental as ever, he keeps churning out films and videos at an impressive clip.
The new works having American theatrical premieres at the Public Theater are ``JLG by JLG,'' a moody self-portrait, and ``Germany Year 90 Nine Zero,'' an avant-garde thriller with a sociopolitical theme.
An unabashed intellectual with a prodigious appetite for art, painting, and philosophy, Godard enjoys stuffing his movies with so many references and quotations that even his fervent admirers are hard-pressed to sort them out in a hurry.
This is especially true of an essay-film like ``JLG by JLG,'' which assembles elements of his own life - from his ideas and theories to his home and his favorite movies - into a densely edited montage that's as difficult to decode as it is gorgeous to see and hear.
The results are oddly wrong-headed at times, as when Godard expounds a symbolic ``theory of stereo'' that dissects Middle East tensions in muddled terms. Yet even the film's weakest passages are never less than stimulating, and it's clear that Godard has retained a taste for self-deflating humor, as when he costumes himself in a winter hat that slyly recalls a jester's cap of old. Full of exquisite music, passionately filmed images, and snippets from all sorts of literature, this ``December self-portrait'' is a unique achievement.
``Germany Year 90 Nine Zero'' borrows its main character from ``Alphaville,'' a 1965 science-fiction movie in which Godard skewered totalitarian tendencies he detected in modern French society. Older and wiser now, hero Lemmy Caution starts his new adventure as a spy in East Berlin just after the Berlin Wall has tumbled. Heading back to West Germany, he passes through a series of situations involving figures from the past few centuries of European history. He ends his journey in a post-cold-war world that Godard finds both alluring and appalling.
In a recent interview, Godard told me that a movie should be half ``spectacle'' and half ``investigation,'' using motion-picture technology to uncover truths that would otherwise be undiscernible in our complex world.
``Germany Year 90 Nine Zero'' fits this formula, combining the last performance of B-movie star Eddie Constantine with Godard's somber ruminations on culture, creativity, and commercialism. It would be more convincing as an investigation if its spectacle aspects weren't quite so quirky and meandering. Still, it's as fascinating as anything Godard has given us in years, making up in adventurousness what it lacks in easy access.
* Jean-Luc Godard is the recipient this month of the first special citation for lifetime achievement ever bestowed by the New York Film Critics Circle.