Even sans Hollywood glitz, imports dazzle

Hollywood is dousing audiences with frantic action, lowdown laughs, and high-tech effects, all supported by promotional campaigns as bruising and inescapable as anything the "Perfect Storm" crew has to face.

In a less heavily hyped summertime tradition, smaller film companies and adventurous theater owners are serving up "counterprogramming" aimed at moviegoers tired of the blockbuster blitz. July is turning into an impressive month for independent and international fare that makes up in imagination for what it lacks in size and scale.

Two Women tells a story so powerful it might be blockbuster material itself if it had a star-studded cast and a glitzy Hollywood look. This is unexpected since it hails from Iran, where a censorship-shy film industry steers away from controversial subjects. It's hard to generalize about contemporary Iranian culture, though. Anyone who perceives it in simplistic ways can get a lesson from this forceful story of a woman's struggle against oppression, told by a female filmmaker who pulls no social or political punches.

The main characters are two young women studying architecture in a Tehran university. One is especially gifted, but her progress is interrupted when a mentally disturbed man stalks her. This would be a difficult situation in any culture, but here it's intensified by prejudices against women who go into the world instead of remaining at home. The paths of the two heroines branch when one continues her studies while the other submits to an arranged marriage that protects her from physical harm but ends her career.

"Two Women" is unlike most Iranian exports in two respects. One is its unflinching concern for the plight of talented women in a male-dominated society. The other is its ability to make sociological points through heart-pounding melodrama. For expertly crafted suspense, Tahmineh Milani's "Two Women" rivals any American production of the season.

The Five Senses comes from Canada and tells a more complicated story - or set of stories, to be precise. Its characters are loosely connected and relate in different ways to an event that sets the movie in motion: the disappearance of a little girl in a Toronto park. Filmmaker Jeremy Podeswa's interest lies in how our physical senses shape our social and psychological lives. He explores this through interwoven experiences: a music-loving eye doctor who's losing his hearing, a massage therapist who touches her clients but is losing touch with her daughter, a wedding-cake baker whose taste isn't all it should be, and so on.

Podeswa has filmed "The Five Senses" with uncommon skill. A number of today's most talented Canadian filmmakers, including such world-class talents as Atom Egoyan and Don McKellar, have a liking for fragmented stories told from multiple points of view, perhaps reflecting the ungraspable sprawl and diversity of Canada itself. "The Five Senses" is a splendid example of this increasingly impressive breed.

Water Drops on Burning Rocks is a keenly sardonic tale adapted by French director Franois Ozon from a play by the late German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder. It explores the self-destructive nature of sexual gamesmanship through the story of a heedless young man caught between his beautiful fiance and a self-absorbed male lover.

The Wind Will Carry Us - the latest movie by Abbas Kiarostami, regarded by many as Iran's greatest current director - focuses on a filmmaker who visits a rural village. It probes a number of intricate relationships between tradition and modernity, professionalism and humanity, and the physical and the spiritual with extraordinary intelligence and compassion.

'Two Women,' not rated, contains harrowing suspense. 'The Five Senses' and 'Water Drops on Burning Rocks,' rated R, contain sex, nudity, and four-letter language. 'The Wind Will Carry Us,' not rated, contains no objectionable content.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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