Indies shine during hiatus for Hollywood

As usual in the midwinter season, movies from the independent and international scene are helping to fill American screens while Hollywood prepares the coming wave of spring releases. It's not surprising that a picture like "Judy Berlin" would arrive at this time of year, brushing off the dust it accumulated during nine months on the shelf since its premire at the Cannes film festival last May.

Modest in every way, from its suburban setting to its black-and-white cinematography, Judy Berlin takes place in a Long Island town during what must be the longest solar eclipse in history. The main characters are a loosely connected group of ordinary people, including discontented spouses, well-meaning schoolteachers, and - central to the story - a young man who's returned home with broken dreams, and a young woman who's leaving home with great expectations. A conversation between them provides a quirky, wandering framework for the quirky, wandering movie.

It's hard to say whether "Judy Berlin" is energized more by its creative acting, its unpredictable plot, or the subtly dreamlike mood that gets farther under your skin as the eclipse stretches beyond the limits of physical possibility.

Ultimately, it's the way first-time director Eric Mendelsohn combines these factors that makes the picture so engaging. "Judy Berlin" is a true original, and a welcome sign that the American independent film movement remains alive and flourishing.

Other countries also have innovators who want to shake-up the cinematic status quo, and none have gained more attention in recent years than the Dogma 95 directors in Denmark, who follow an artistic "vow of chastity" by giving up studio fakery in their films. The movement's major achievements so far have been "The Celebration" and "The Idiots," both from Denmark, and "Julien Donkey-Boy," an American offshoot.

Americans now have another chance to assess the Dogma approach in Mifune, a Danish comedy-drama named after one of Japan's most legendary actors. The protagonist is Kresten, a Copenhagen businessman who becomes the reluctant guardian of his brother, Rud, a mentally slow fellow whose eccentricities include a huge enthusiasm for Toshiro Mifune, the Japanese movie star. Kresten leaves his brand-new wife to put Rud's life in order after the death of their father, but finds his task complicated in unexpected ways, especially when a newly hired housekeeper turns out to be a prostitute on the run.

"Mifune" benefits from the stripped-down Dogma style, which offers a refreshing change from Hollywood techniques through its emphasis on vigorous performances and streamlined filmmaking techniques. It is as solidly written and photographed as "The Celebration," the movement's most popular film. Movie fans who share Rud's affection for Mifune may enjoy it even more. Soren Kragh-Jacobsen directed.

Not of This World hails from Italy, where some moviemakers plug into Dogma-like traditions of gritty "neo-realism" while others choose more flamboyant styles. Dipping into both of these territories, director Giuseppe Piccioni tells the story of a seemingly bland dry-cleaning entrepreneur whose life changes when he meets a nun trying to find the parents of an abandoned infant.

Handling comic and dramatic scenes with equal confidence, Piccioni weaves this basic situation into a surprisingly complex tapestry involving a varied cast of secondary characters, some of whom are at least as interesting as the heroes of the tale. Already the recipient of several international prizes, "Not of This World" is a healthy reminder of Italy's still-vibrant cinematic heritage.

* 'Judy Berlin' and 'Not of This World,' not rated, have some vulgarity and adult material. 'Mifune,' rated R, also has significant sexual content.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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