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CRITIC AT LARGE

Romance Of Allen's Reality

February 08, 1986|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

Thanks to the 11 nominations his film received, Steven Spielberg became the most conspicuous director to get mugged last Wednesday in the qualifying heat of the Academy Awards. But he wasn't the only one.

Ron Howard of "Cocoon" and Robert Zemeckis of "Back to the Future" have to feel they must have been doing something right, for their films to have been so well received. There are still others who will have to wait for a later year.

But the opening on Friday of Woody Allen's "Hannah and Her Sisters" was a reminder, mocking in its perfect timeliness, that Allen is yet another outcast from the academy's High Five.

Allen in truth can now be seen to stand virtually alone among American film makers in his amazing powers of creativity (he has already finished photography on yet another film) and his ever-increasing daring, confidence and command of the medium.

"The Purple Rose of Cairo" was more than a deliciously original script, it was a technically tricky and difficult act of film making, impeccably brought off. But the magic of black-and-white screen characters stalking off into full-color reality was not the end in itself, only the means to a particular and pointed homage to the movies.

"Purple Rose," funny, dark and melancholy in equal portions, celebrated the movies of pre-television days as the flickering enchantments they were, occasionally preposterous, lighting up gray lives for the space of an afternoon or evening.

The movie also said, I think, that the romance of fantasy and reality was forever doomed. The fantasy drifted away to memory; the reality was always there in the morning. This bittersweetness gave the film its slight but unsettling force.

"Hannah and Her Sisters" now arrives, as Sheila Benson said on Friday, as a masterwork, very possibly the best and most mature film Allen has made yet and certainly the warmest and (who'd have thought it?) finally the most serenely sentimental.

The earlier Allen wanders through "Hannah," the fast-joking loser, harassed by his own success, trailing a broken marriage, a damaged psyche and (it may be) a lethal malady. In all of this (notably his concerns with rejection and death, the ultimate rejection) he is in a sense a summary of his own film history.

It's in fact as if his whole past life was flashing before our eyes: the coughing comic delivering one-liners to the camera evolving to the more rounded characterizations of "Annie Hall," "Manhattan," "Stardust Memories," "Broadway Danny Rose" and now revealed in "Hannah" as a man who has overtaken and passed his own Angst , somewhere on the Upper West Side.

This time the Allen figure is only occasionally the center of events. More generally he is the protagonist as witness, a catalyst perhaps, and our link to the principal concerns of the film, which are the relationships of Mia Farrow with her two sisters and her show-biz parents.

How much those relationships are to be read as a film a clef, inspired by the real dynamics of The Hollywood Family Farrow, is a question that is already enlivening dinner conversations. (Inquiring minds want to guess.)

It is an interesting but unimportant question, made spicy, of course, by the presence of Maureen O'Sullivan, real mother playing screen mother and doing it with a wonderful rowdy flair.

Yet, these women (Mia, O'Sullivan and the excellent Barbara Hershey and Dianne Wiest) and their men (Woody, Lloyd Nolan, Michael Caine, Max Von Sydow) are both individuals and types. They are unique and even exotic and yet, allowing for due changes in latitude and longitude, easily recognizable.

How far need you travel to find the daughter on whom all the family responsibilities seem to fall, the daughter who ricochets from one intense devotion to the next (but who may yet find one that lasts), the daughter who careens from scheme to scheme in quest of a life's work, the restless men, the unsatisfactory men, the conversations with the flying plates, to quote an old song.

The deep and embracing delight of "Hannah and Her Sisters" is the feeling of being in the presence of a man in command. It is experienced in the best and surest work of the best and most individual film makers: Bergman of "Fannie and Alexander," Fellini of "La Dolce Vita," Truffaut of "Day for Night," for examples.

In "Hannah," Allen takes the camera on a leisurely tour of Manhattan facades he evidently loves, gargoyles and window patterns, an old church, a mews that seems to have drifted west from London. The pilgrimage is linked to the plot, tenuously enough, but it doesn't matter, nor does it matter if you've never been east of the Susquehanna River. The sequence is there; it's charming and it is unexpectedly affecting because it is presented as a gift to be shared.

I would like to think that the academy in its collective wisdom will retain "Hannah" in mind a year from now. But let us not count on it. There is plenty of evidence that the world does not always love a winner.

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