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Montreal filmfest offers sneak preview of the best and brightest

The World Film Festival here is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, and there's plenty of glitz and glamour to prove it.

Sophia Loren arrived to receive a gala tribute in her honor. Martin Scorsese chose this festival to unveil his massive movie "My Voyage to Italy," a four-hour odyssey through Italian cinema, for North American audiences. The awards jury is presided over by Emmuelle Béart, the most gleaming female star in European film today.

But in 2001, as for the past quarter of a century, this adventurously programmed festival (through Sept. 3) is less about celebrities than about movies for their own sake. And there are movies aplenty, representing 70 countries from Sri Lanka and Ukraine to Haiti and Senegal.

The best and brightest will be seen here by distributors and exhibitors from around the globe - not to mention moviegoers, who are expected to buy some 350,000 tickets over 14 days - and the most appealing will make their way to American screens in the coming weeks and months.

One that will probably fall into this category is Whatever Happened to Harold Smith, an American production filmed in England and perhaps destined to pick up where other northern English comedies like "The Full Monty" and "Billy Elliott" left off. The hero is a young man who works in an attorney's office, dreams of becoming the new John Travolta at his local disco, and copes with an unusual family at home - the most unusual member being his father, a mild-mannered bloke who has learned he has a talent for levitating objects into the air.

What makes "Whatever Happened" so entertaining is its sprightly energy, its unfailing sense of humor, and its skill at etching memorable characters - like our hero's mother, who's prone to flirting with her son's best pal, and his girlfriend's father, a prissy professor whose life turns upside down after he witnesses one of those levitation feats. The acting is also splendid, with Stephen Fry as the professor, Lulu as the flirtatious mom, and the great Tom Courtenay as the mystically gifted dad.

I also expect a successful future for the very different Mortal Transfer, a French comedy-drama by Jean-Jacques Beineix, who excited international audiences with "Diva" and "Betty Blue" some years ago, but hasn't been much heard from since.

The protagonist is a psychoanalyst whose most neurotic patient dies mysteriously in his office, sparking a series of bizarre events that make him a murder suspect, a psychological sleuth, and a treasure hunter on the trail of a fortune in missing francs.

Moviegoers should stay away from this one if they don't want to witness a subplot about self-destructive behavior and kinky sex. But those with strong stomachs may appreciate Beineix's imaginative directing and unpredictable plot twists.

Back in American territory, first-time filmmaker Rosemary Rodriguez makes a promising debut with Acts of Worship, a harrowing story of drug addiction told from a strongly antidrug perspective. It centers on a young New Yorker who's been dragged into a morass of drug-related miseries from which she longs to escape.

Ana Reeder makes a strong impression as the heroine, despite a screenplay that includes clichéd dialogue at times, and the Manhattan milieu is filmed with great authenticity. Rodriguez also deserves credit for showing the drug world through the eyes of a white woman from a good home, reminding us how far addiction can extend its tentacles.

Promising pictures from other countries include Martha... Martha, a French drama by Sandrine Veysset, about two sisters with a troubled past, and Light in the Eyes, an Italian production by Andrea Porporati, about a man who kills his aging father for reasons that he can't fathom. Both portray tormented characters whose lives are shaped by their social and family environments as well as by confusions lying deep within their personalities.

Not every film here is a winner. Bobby Roth's new American indie, Jack the Dog, has little to praise except the sincerity of the profamily message that surfaces from its intermittently interesting story about a sex-craving man who takes far too long to learn the value of fatherhood.

On the other end of the scale is Baran, by Majid Majidi, yet another superb film from Iran's creative film industry, and slated for American release from Miramax later this year. Revealing the plight of Iran's many Afghan immigrants through the warmly human tale of a construction worker faced with many hard obstacles, it's as touching and intelligent as anything I've seen here.

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