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CRITIC'S NOTES

Alas For Good Intentions

September 28, 1986|SHEILA BENSON

For an American journalist, and particularly for one based at a newspaper where everything that opens commercially is reviewed, the cumulative experience of a pair of world-class film festivals--Montreal's very European-feeling Festival du Monde followed by Toronto's Festival of Festivals--is stunning.

The very first reaction, actually, is the hunch that you've taken on the shape and general temperament of a paperweight: If placed on a flat surface you will sit through anything. That passes, I am told.

But after 100 or so films, in and out of competition, part of official galas or not, one fact becomes thunderingly clear: The world over, there are film makers using their most precious resources--their ability and their time--to make films that are about something.

That isn't meant as disingenuousness or as sniping; it's not meant as a cryptic comment that films closer to home have no content. Not at all. And it doesn't lose sight of the fact that festivals turn up clinkers, too, or that there are such delicacies as "festival" films which could not make it outside the hothouse air of a festival. This is simply an acknowledgment that stepping back from the week-in, week-out parade of commercial releases in a marketplace like Los Angeles can clear your head as well as lift your spirits. And it's an eloquent reminder of the number and variety of films still made which are born from an unquenchable need to tell a specific story a certain way.

For one thing, you realize that your scale of judging can get out of whack after a steady diet of films made for no discernible reason whatsoever. You become whimperingly grateful for films of any substance or quality. "It's not really very good, but I don't want to discourage films of that kind from being made," becomes the rationale of the frayed reviewer. Little code phrases appear: a film you'd like to like more than you do. A film of the highest intentions. We've all used them at one time or another, not out of a sense of condescension but more from an almost romantic affection for cinema itself.

We've just had three films locally which are almost textbook examples of movies you'd love to wish well but can't: "The Name of the Rose," made from an almost preternaturally challenging first novel by Italian critic and historian Umberto Eco; "Where the River Runs Black," which sits stylistically somewhere between "The Wild Child" and "Emerald Forest," and a try at bringing Verdi's "Otello" to a wide movie audience.

Alas for good intentions, all three films fail their audiences, two by a kind of shimmering pretentiousness, one from a murky failure to ignite any passion. What's sad is that each of these stories might have made a thrilling film, and that chunks of what might have been can still be seen in each movie--portions, but not enough.

In the case of "The Name of the Rose," its power comes from Sean Connery's intelligent and ironic presence; from the painterly photography of Tonnini Delli Colli and from James Horner's striking musical score, one of the few to evoke the Middle Ages without plundering "Carmina Burana."

The subversion begins with the studio's ad campaign, a not infrequent occurrence and often not of the film maker's doing. You have to wonder what audience 20th Century Fox was trying to lure with its ad. Not readers of the novel, certainly, with a drawing showing an arch Connery, his head and arms set faintly like Jack Benny's, and the line "Who, in the name of God, is getting away with murder?" Arguably, a book whose 500 pages lead to a crucial point, whether the Catholic church in the Middle Ages is strong enough to withstand the cleansing power of laughter, is going to have its work cut out for itself as a commercial film. Still, in hands other than director Jean-Jacques Annaud's, it might have worked. Annaud feels at times more an archivist than a storyteller and his pacing is lugubrious. By the conclusion, what admiration you have for the film makers' tackling the project has vanished in despair at its misfiring.

Director Christopher Cain succeeds in "Where the River Runs Black" with his luminous visual passages and fails whenever the characters open their mouths, as Michael Wilmington pointed out succinctly in his review. The first third of the film, as a vaguely hippie priest falls under the spell of a mysterious jungle beauty, is really magical. Much of the film's power comes again from an astonishing score by Horner, blended with Juan Ruiz-Anchia's sensitive cinematography. But this magic is dissipated by the awkward and astoundingly illogical handling of the city sequences. Those follow the fruit of this union, a jungle wild child, to the city with its inherent evils.

Cain is best at long, sustained visual passages or with children (both with young Alessandro Rabelo here and with Jason Presson in "The Stone Boy"), but pretentiousness and illogic are the demons here.

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