Issues of Domestic Life Preoccupy Filmmakers, Adding Weight to Trend

I'm suspicious of critics who discover a new ''trend'' at almost every film festival. They usually accomplish this by stringing together movies with some slender connection, using the ''thematic thread'' as evidence that the world's filmmakers are suddenly obsessed with a common subject.

What's really at work is mere coincidence, coupled with the tendency of distributors to follow a hit movie with similar pictures that happen to be on the market at the same time.

But real trends do surface from time to time, and a year ago I reported on a remarkable surge of films dealing with family-related subjects. The groundswell is still going on, judging from pictures I've seen at the recently concluded World Film Festival here. Families, marriages, and other household matters are at the center of more movies than the coincidence theory can account for.

The first evidence cropped up on opening night, when Touchstone Films unveiled ''Feast of July,'' based on H.E. Bates's respected novel. The heroine of this 19th-century drama is a young woman whose out-of-wedlock child has died, and who now wants to start life afresh by moving into the home of a respectable family that offered to shelter her. This starts a rivalry among the family's three grown sons, who vie for the affection of their attractive houseguest. Then the scoundrel who seduced and abandoned her comes back on the scene, leading to a tragic confrontation and a bittersweet ending.

''Feast of July'' doesn't go very deeply into the dramatic situations, putting less emphasis on the story's inner meanings than on the cinematographer's lush images of English life in bygone times. Embeth Davidtz is appealing in the central role, though, nicely following up her impressive ''Schindler's List'' performance. And the movie's old-fashioned morality makes a refreshing contrast with contemporary fashions, particularly when pangs of conscience lead one of the main characters to an ethical choice that literally puts his life in the balance.

Far more interesting is ''The Wife,'' written and directed by Tom Noonan, who made the riveting ''What Happened Was ...'' last year. Based on his play ''Wifey,'' it depicts a difficult evening in the lives of two married couples - a man who wants to leave his discontented spouse, and two psychiatrists who don't appear to know much about human nature or anything else.

There are no heroes or villains in the story, just complex emotions that grow ever more tangled as the characters interact. Noonan is one of the rare filmmakers who don't gloss over the mysteries of human personality but explores them in all their density and intricacy. While his new movie is flawed in significant respects, it's more fascinating than almost anything else around.

Israeli cinema was a special focus of the festival, and I was eager to see ''An Imagined Autobiography'' because it was written and directed by Michal Bat-Adam, one of Israel's most versatile cinematic talents. She plays a filmmaker who's directing a film-within-the-film about her childhood, emphasizing her relationship with her somewhat difficult parents. Further complicating the narrative is the fact that the parents are still a big part of her life, putting new demands on her even as she tries to capture their past demands on film.

Modestly produced on an obviously limited budget, ''An Imagined Autobiography'' does not achieve all its ambitions. It shows an intelligent awareness of family dynamics, though, and treats all its characters - including the most aggravating ones - with welcome affection and respect.

Family interests also play an important part in ''Warrior Lanling,'' a Chinese epic about an ancient warlord with a mother as fierce as he is, and ''King of the River,'' a Spanish satire about a household that dotes on an unworthy son. And family humor is all over the screen in ''Cold Comfort Farm,'' a new version of the popular Stella Gibbons novel, directed by John Schlesinger and featuring Ian McKellen, Eileen Atkins, and Freddie Jones.

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