Three European films seize the moment

Drought conditions linger at Hollywood studios, which dribble out crowd-teasers like "Payback" (see above) and "Message in a Bottle" (coming next week), but withholding substantial fare until audiences feel more festive as spring approaches.

Rushing into this vacuum is a diverse group of international movies that have bided their time for this moment, knowing they'd be drowned out by giant advertising budgets if they bid for attention during busier times of year. Those doing well in big-city engagements will have a chance of penetrating smaller markets in coming weeks, and it will be interesting to see whether the success of the Italian comedy "Life Is Beautiful" boosts the popularity of subtitled movies in general.

Italy is also the homeland of Pizzicata, directed by newcomer Edoardo Winspeare in his native Salentino peninsula, a southern region where no fiction film has been produced before. The story centers on a peasant community during World War II. But unlike the soldiers of "Saving Private Ryan," these villagers are experiencing the war indirectly, sending their sons into faraway battle and waiting, waiting, waiting for either a happy homecoming or news of a dreaded outcome.

The plot begins when an American plane is shot down nearby, bringing an Italian-American soldier into the area. He speaks the local dialect fluently, and a family anxious over the welfare of their son, who's away on active duty, decides to shelter him instead of alerting the authorities. The situation grows more complicated when he falls in love with a young woman in the household, sparking jealousies that lead to unhappy events.

"Pizzicata" recalls the great tradition of "neorealist" movies that made Italian film hugely popular with American audiences in the 1940s and '50s. Like the wonderful pictures of Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica, which still find many viewers on home video, it revels in the sincerity of unforced performances, the earthiness of well-worn landscapes, the authenticity of details drawn directly from life. Only one character is played by a professional actor.

The movie also benefits from an imaginative structure, accenting its story with energetic music and expressionistic camera work. While the performances are not always persuasive, and parts of the picture are slow and uninvolving, it offers a fascinating window on peasant life and could become the most widely seen Italian drama since "Il Postino" scored a hit five years ago.

France makes particularly strong efforts to promote its movies in the United States, and Dry Cleaning arrives with prizes in its pocket: the Venice film festival award for best screenplay and a Csar award, France's equivalent of an Oscar, for Stanislas Merhar as best new actor of 1997. These accolades don't mean everyone will enjoy the movie, which has quite a few sordid moments. Merhar plays a likable but enigmatic young man who earns his living as a female impersonator in a nightclub act with his sister. He meets a middle-class couple who invite him to work in their dry-cleaning business, beginning a tragic web of rivalries and tensions.

The film's most impressive acting comes from Miou-Miou, a leading French actress who deserves every ounce of her popularity. Charles Berling gives a heartfelt performance as her frequently confused husband. Anne Fontaine directs the drama.

Moviegoers looking for something different might try another French offering, Fantastic Planet, an animated feature that attracted large American audiences in 1974 and is having a second US premire with its original French soundtrack. The movie depicts an exotic world inhabited by giant creatures called Traags and smaller beings called Oms, who live like the two races in "The Time Machine" in an unhappy state of hostility and exploitation. Making the film distinctive are both its bizarre story and its unorthodox images, which reflect the interest of director Ren Laloux and designer Roland Topor in surrealism and "outsider" art. It also has political undertones that almost prevented Laloux from finishing it, since it was produced at a studio in Prague, where authorities reputedly frowned at its depiction of revolt against authoritarianism.

"Fantastic Planet" is too strange and disorienting to be considered a children's movie. But grown-ups with a taste for outlandish fantasy may find it enticing.

* 'Pizzicata,' not rated, has an adult theme and tactfully depicted violence. 'Dry Cleaning,' not rated, contains sensuality, sexually explicit scenes, and violence. 'Fantastic Planet,' rated PG, contains nudity, sexuality, and violence.

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