A Fanfare for New Cinema

Annual festival charms and disappoints with a slate of international movies

EVERY year about this time, the New Directors/New Films festival makes a justified fuss about the high-profile movies it has introduced in bygone seasons. Last year its discoveries ranged from the pungent ''Fresh'' to the wretched ''Clerks,'' while previous editions have given audiences their first look at pictures as varied as ''My Life as a Dog'' and ''Slacker.''

Is the 1995 lineup as provocative as the best of earlier years? It's hard to generalize about a program that opens with a Chinese melodrama and an American comedy, closes with an Iranian cultural study and a Belgian autobiography, and touches everything from Hungarian family drama to Indian action thriller in between.

But whatever the verdicts from festivalgoers, many selections already have distributors lined up to release them in theaters, so moviegoers far from New York will be able to make up their own minds about much of the slate.

It's unlikely that any offering will charm more spectators than ''Living in Oblivion,'' wisely chosen as the program's first attraction. Written and directed by Tom DeCillo, whose previous picture was the supercool ''Johnny Suede,'' this wry comedy looks at a logical subject for a hip low-budget filmmaker: the shooting of a hip low-budget film, in an out-of-the-way Manhattan studio where crises, interruptions, and ego trips are the order of the day.

Played by Steve Buscemi, a leading star of Off Hollywood cinema, the fictional director of ''Living in Oblivion'' may be a stand-in for DeCillo himself, coping valiantly with an actress's insecurity, an actor's machismo, a cinematographer's vanity, and a special-effects department consisting of a smoke machine that refuses to do its job right. All this chaos is rendered hilarious by witty performances, sharp-eyed camera work, and laugh- out-loud dialogue. Due in theaters this spring, ''Living in Oblivion'' might be the cleverest movie of the season; it's certainly the funniest.

Less impressive is the festival's other opening attraction. ''Red Firecracker, Green Firecracker,'' by Chinese director He Ping, takes place in northern China during the early 20th century. Forced to renounce her identity as a woman in order to rule her family's industrial empire, the heroine nonetheless falls in love with a young artist, whose passion threatens the status quo.

The movie's plot makes for a telling metaphor illuminating the struggle between selfhood and tradition -- especially concerning women -- in rural Chinese culture. Unfortunately, the film is badly weakened by an episodic structure and a penchant for unconvincing melodrama. These flaws override such virtues as colorful photography, earnest acting, and enough fireworks to keep you jumping in your seat.

A good candidate for most-talked-about picture in the series is ''Bandit Queen,'' a rousing thriller that gained an unwanted publicity boost when it was banned by the government of its native India last summer. Based on a real-life outlaw, the main character is Phoolan Devi, who allegedly committed a series of explosive crimes -- or revolutionary acts, depending on one's perspective -- before her arrest in 1983.

Directed by Shekhar Kapur, the movie is partly based on diaries that Devi dictated during her 11 years in prison, but later disavowed. Mala Sen's screenplay characterizes her as a sort of female Robin Hood whose rage is aimed at an unjust social system based on systematic oppression of women and the poor. The film's indignation is both righteous and vivid, although Kapur's weakness for repetitious violence tends to lengthen his social indictments without deepening them.

Tyranny closer to home is the subject of ''The Deadly Maria,'' a German drama about a woman driven to desperation by the oppressive demands of her father and her husband. Written and directed by Tom Tykwer, the movie blends a meticulously crisp style with images that become dreamlike and even hallucinatory as the story wends its tragicomic way to a startling conclusion.

More impressive still is what might be the most oddly titled film in the series: ''Petits arrangements avec les morts,'' which translates from French as ''little arrangements with the dead,'' although it's being shown to American audiences under the simpler title ''Coming to Terms.''

The story begins on a beach where a middle-aged man is building a sand castle. Among the onlookers are his younger brother, with whom he still shares a sibling rivalry; their sister, facing an imminent crisis stemming from stresses in her life; and a feisty young boy named Jumbo, who has taken on the peculiar task of remembering dead people so they won't fade entirely from the human sphere. The movie jumps between intersecting subplots meant to show how the sadnesses of childhood may affect entire lifetimes to come.

Directed with stunning clarity by Pascale Ferran, ''Coming to Terms'' joins a distinguished parade of recent French films exploring the secrets of youth and adolescence with intelligence and compassion; and its adult characters are treated no less understandingly.

Already honored with the Camera d'Or prize for best first feature at the Cannes filmfest, it's the sort of triumph that programs like New Directors/New Films were invented to spotlight.

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