Vienna bubbles with boisterous movie mix

Film fest is packed with engaging films headed to the US

When you mention Vienna, movie buffs automatically think of Orson Welles scampering through the city's labyrinthine sewer system or soaring on its giant Ferris wheel in "The Third Man," a cloak-and-dagger classic that gained new fame with its recent American reissue.

Vienna has retained its Old World charm remarkably well since 1949, when that picture was released. And even a forward-looking event like the Vienna International Film Festival gains extra elegance from this history-drenched European setting.

Not that the movies on view at this year's Viennale - to use the festival's official name - tended to value elegance over entertainment value.

Like all first-rate film fests, it reconfirmed the variety of modern cinema by assembling a bubbling, sometimes boisterous mixture of the new, the old, the traditional, and the downright unprecedented.

It added up to an energy-filled snapshot of world film today, packed with sneak previews of attractions due shortly on both sides of the Atlantic - quite an achievement by festival chief Hans Hurch, given the growing dominance of money-minded distributors and marketers, which he tells me is an increasingly irksome concern even in the idealistic art-film world.

At a time when American audiences appear to be growing more skeptical toward the low-budget independent scene, it was a particular pleasure to see more than one excellent "indie" drawing attention and applause from the international movie-lovers assembled here.

Perhaps most impressive was George Washington, which has gathered momentum - and buzz - at several festivals en route to its commercial premiere today.

The setting is a rural town in the American South, and the characters are poor kids going through familiar routines of growing up: exploring their interests, falling in love, and figuring out the adult world they're about to enter.

What makes their community unusual is the presence of the title character, an African-American boy with a physical handicap and a gallant spirit that makes him a hero in ways he never expected.

The story is told through leisurely, eye-catching shots that allow the young cast members to imbue their characters with striking credibility and intensity.

Written and directed by first-timer David Gordon Green, this is an indie that deserves every ounce of the praise it's already garnered.

Less original but equally engaging is You Can Count on Me, by Kenneth Lonergan, another terrific new talent. It focuses on the infrequently examined subject of emotional relations between a grown-up brother and sister - in this case, a successful businesswoman and an immature drifter whose lives take on new complexity when he wanders back to the town where they grew up. Wittily written and deliciously acted by Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo, it promises to be a full-fledged indie hit when it reaches theaters next month.

Asian cinema has been soaring this year, and the Viennale presented superb specimens from several countries. The aptly named In the Mood for Love, from Hong Kong, tells the moody but never maudlin story of a lonely man and woman with straying spouses. Eureka, from Japan, is an offbeat road movie about young siblings recovering from traumatic experiences.

The eagerly anticipated Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, from Taiwan, brings Chinese-American director Ang Lee together with Asia's popular martial-arts genre - a far cry from (and a lesser achievement than) dramas like "The Ice Storm" and "The Wedding Banquet," which have made Lee a star filmmaker with US audiences.

Equal excitement was generated by the latest movies from Iran, where filmmakers are probing issues related to children, women, and the underprivileged with an intelligence and commitment found in few other national cinemas. A Time for Drunken Horses tells the poignant story of a poverty-stricken family's quest to find medical attention for a child.

Djomeh sketches the romantic hopes of an Afghan immigrant. The Circle is the suspenseful and compassionate tale of three women caught by different kinds of oppression in Tehran.

If one movie on the current festival circuit has emerged as a favorite with critics and audiences alike, it may be The House of Mirth, adapted by English filmmaker Terence Davies from Edith Wharton's heartbreaking novel. Gillian Anderson - yes, "The X-Files" star - shows a stunning new side to her talent as a turn-of-the-20th-century woman who travels a downward path darkened by romantic and social woes.

Filled with more finely tuned emotion and literary intelligence than all the Jane Austen adaptations put together, it proves that Anderson and Davies are world-class artists with talents even more impressive than their admirers already thought.

All the films discussed here are due for US release. Those with confirmed opening dates are 'George Washington' and 'A Time for Drunken Horses,' in theaters today; 'You Can Count on Me,' Nov. 10; 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,' Dec. 8; and 'The House of Mirth,' Dec. 22.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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