Filmfest Scales Walls That Divide People

In Montreal, a new crop of films explores 'closed communities'

Many moviegoers call "Men in Black," about secret agents and outer-space aliens, the summer's coolest entertainment. But its ad campaign strikes an irksome note. Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith face the camera, overloaded with heavy weapons. Under them is a slogan about guarding Earth from "the scum of the universe."

Of course it's just for laughs, promoting a crazy comedy. But it carries a subliminal message - celebrating an us-against-them mentality and portraying Earth as a sort of gated community staving off disruption with might, muscle, and firepower.

The theme of "closed communities," cultivating their own values behind fences and walls, is increasingly common in popular movies. Sometimes it's explored directly, as in films about urban or suburban areas trying to fend off contemporary problems. More often it's treated indirectly, with groups of people binding themselves together via interests or principles not shared by those around them.

In one form or another, the trend cropped up often at Montreal's influential World Film Festival recently. No movie tackled it more literally than Lawn Dogs, a flawed but fascinating new drama by John Duigan.

Middle-class sameness

The setting for the film is a closed-off Kentucky community that prides itself on middle-class homogeneity. The townspeople would probably ban outsiders if they could, but they tolerate a few, such as the young man who supports himself by mowing their manicured lawns. He becomes the innocent friend of a businessman's 10-year-old daughter, prompting unfounded suspicions - then hostility and violence - among neighbors whose well-groomed faades hide distressing amounts of corruption and dishonesty.

"Lawn Dogs" paints a searing portrait of suburban class warfare, but far from despairing over the unhappiness it shows, it ends with a fairy-tale finale that allows the virtuous characters a symbolic victory. Sam Rockwell is convincing as the eccentric worker, and Mischa Barton makes a smashing debut as his young friend. The picture was generally well received here and should be on screens in the United States before long.

The Assistant, a Canadian production by Daniel Petrie, deals with communities separated by religious beliefs rather than property lines. The hero is a poor New Yorker struggling to survive during the Depression years. Succumbing to temptation, he helps a friend rob a neighborhood grocery store, but suffers enormous guilt and goes to work in the store as a way of atoning.

There he falls in love with the owners' daughter, only to find that her Jewish parents would never let her marry a Christian fellow like him. Learning more about the Jewish tradition, he is strongly drawn to its values and starts making religion a central part of his life.

Adapted from a Bernard Malamud novel, "The Assistant" is marred by overdoses of sentimentality. But there's sturdy acting by Armin Mueller-Stahl, Kate Greenhouse, and Joan Plowright, and in the end it shows religion as a powerful force that can unite as well as divide.

Distinctive boundaries

Other movies introduced by the festival also use New York neighborhoods as backgrounds for stories about distinctive communities. Kicked in the Head, due in US theaters later this month, follows the adventures of a scruffy young man struggling for a sense of security in Manhattan's scruffy Lower East Side, where thuggish neighbors - including his own uncle - seem determined to keep him as down and out as they are.

Directed by Matthew Harrison, the picture has a strong cast (Linda Fiorentino, James Woods, Lily Taylor, Michael Rapaport) careening through its tragicomic plot.

Mature moviegoers may find it much too rude and rowdy, but it has a thoughtful subtext about the self-inflicted troubles of working-class youngsters who are convinced that the only alternative to street life is middle-class boredom, symbolized by a flight attendant who detests her job.

Sunday, shown in Montreal just as it arrived on US screens, focuses on a middle-aged man and woman who become unlikely lovers after a chance meeting. As much a documentary as a drama, the picture details everyday life in Queens - a New York City borough that's both urban and suburban - with compassionate care.

No recent movie has so successfully shown the interaction between individual behaviors and the social environment around them. Noteworthy too is the film's depiction of a couple forming their own "closed community" within a large metropolis.

Several new overseas movies also deal with community. The festival's opening attraction, the French comedy Un Air si pur, shows people from different classes affecting one another's lives in a mountain sanitarium.

An Ambiguous Report About the End of the World, by Czech filmmaker Juraj Jakubisko, shows how isolated peasants adjust their folkways and mores as the world drags them into the modern age.

The Glamorous World of the Adlon Hotel is Percy Adlon's lively documentary on a family's effort to maintain old-fashioned elegance in a changing world.

Raoul Ruiz's ingenious Genealogies of a Crime features French superstars Catherine Deneuve and Michel Piccoli in a dark comedy about conflicts within a professional society.

These movies vary widely in effectiveness, entertainment value, and taste. But taken together, they show a growing concern with the meanings of community in a multitude of forms.

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