POLITICS and cinema have been interacting with unusual vigor lately.
China banned director Zhang Yimou from the New York Film Festival premiere of his "Shanghai Triad" because authorities didn't like another entry in the festival program. Iran is trying to yank "The White Balloon" from the Oscar race because of anger at American intervention in its affairs.
Now two new pictures, "Antonia's Line" and "Vukovar," are arriving on American screens with clear political messages in tow. Neither is likely to cause government action, but both are drawing extra attention because of the forthright stands they take on major issues.
This is something of a novelty for American moviegoers, given Hollywood's reluctance to take a clear-cut position on anything controversial enough to bring a slump in ticket sales. There are exceptions to this, of course - recent releases like "The American President" and "Dead Man Walking," for example, both dare to take stands on highly charged issues.
As for the latest political movies from abroad, it's hard to say whether their arrival heralds a trend in US distribution policies, since the pictures have little in common except their no-nonsense connections with the real world. "Antonia's Line" is a feminist fable directed by Dutch filmmaker Marleen Gorris, long respected for her ambitious explorations of gender and sexuality. "Vukovar" is a "Romeo and Juliet" tale framed by the former Yugoslavia's civil war.
Of the two, "Antonia's Line" is more likely to be a popular hit. Already honored with major prizes at various filmfests, it focuses on a strong-willed Dutch woman who returns to her ancestral home after World War II and sets up an unusual kind of household, run by and for the women of the family. They have a friendly attitude toward some underprivileged men who live nearby, but they show little sympathy for ordinary males who expect the world to revolve around their own gender.
This story allows filmmaker Gorris to portray a wide range of female characters. Besides the heroine, whose strength and sturdiness give the movie its center, we meet her eccentric mother, her intelligent granddaughter, and other friends and relatives who embody different sides of what Gorris sees as the feminine sensibility.
We also encounter a number of men, and this is where the movie runs into trouble. While some are likable, none are well-rounded characters, and many are introduced just to inflict some sort of misery on a woman so Gorris can hammer home an ideological point.
I have a great deal of sympathy with her contention that women need to control their own lives in a world that's been skewed by centuries of male hegemony. But this message would have a lot more force if it were argued in a three-dimensional narrative inhabited by credible characters instead of stock figures who'd be more at home in a medieval allegory. Gorris's ideas are vivid and provocative. They deserve a movie that's equally compelling.
Named after a border town where Serbs and Croats have intermingled and intermarried for as long as anyone can remember, "Vukovar" centers on a Croatian woman and a Serbian man who meet, fall in love, and marry in the deceptively calm moments before violence engulfs their land, separating them from each other and from their dreams of a contented family life.
"Vukovar" is no more subtle than "Antonia's Line" when it comes to arguing a point, using the heroine's pregnancy as a poignant yet heavy-handed metaphor for war's awful toll on the young and innocent. The film makes a laudable effort to avoid partisan propaganda, though, aiming its criticisms at nationalism and aggression without ascribing the worst evils to one side or the other.
Boro Draskovic, a Sarajevo native, directed the movie in Vukovar itself, taking eloquent advantage of its bombed-out streets and landscapes. The main characters are appealingly played by Boris Isakovic and Mirjana Jokovic, a star of "Underground," the epic from the former Yugoslavia that won the top prize at last year's Cannes filmfest.
While it's not a great film, "Vukovar" is a noteworthy reminder of a terrible conflict whose tensions have not yet been defused.
*"Antonia's Line" and "Vukovar" have not been rated. Both contain violence, nudity, and sexual activity.