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In Eliseo Subiela's excellent new Argentine film, "Man Facing Southeast" (Cineplex), actor Hugo Soto is blessed with one of those unique movie faces: indelible, haunting, pure. Like Falconetti in "Passion of Joan of Arc" or Claude Laydu in "Diary of a Country Priest," Soto, playing a kind of madman/cypher/saint, believably radiates intense spirituality and inner suffering. He suggests a grave, mute perfection and sculptural stillness, caught in the screen's latticework of light.

Soto's character, Rantes, is an ethereally calm young man who suddenly turns up in a mental institution and claims to be a data-gatherer from outer space. (When "broadcasting," he stands motionless for hours, facing southeast; hence the title.)

Around him, at first, writer director Subiela seems to be spinning one of those familiar science-fiction fables--"Man Who Fell to Earth" or "Stranger in a Strange Land"--in which an alien visitor throws into relief the world's cruelty, hypocrisy, lack of civilization. But the narration keeps us off balance. The story is told by Rantes' psychiatrist, Dr. Julio Denis (Lorenzo Quinteros), a rational, sympathetic, defeated man whose moral predicament is utterly convincing. Denis is drawn to Rantes, but never sure of the pitch of his sanity. (Although we see Rantes' "miracles," Denis doesn't; until the end, he's able to rationalize everything.)

Without the intensity generated by Soto--and the equally fascinating, sad, burnt-out humanity of Quinteros' Denis--this film might not be as effective by half. Nothing in the story really surprises you: the saintlike Beatriz, Rantes' friend (well played by Ines Vernengo); Denis' violent seduction; Rantes' persecution by the asylum authorities; even the inmate riot to Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." In outline, all of this seems formulaic, a standard "madmen are sane/keepers are mad" fable.

Yet Subiela--who directs his lead actors with a near-Henry Jamesian devotion to nuance and tiny shifts of expression--pulls you in anyway. By the end, the film's restraint has become overpowering, the subtlety transcendent. (He's even able to get away with restaging the "Pieta.")

Subiela, like Luis Puenza ("The Official Story"), was an eminent Argentine TV-commercial director who emerged in features after the overthrow of the junta; this is his second film. As a director, his strength lies in the areas where most recent American directors are weakest: psychology, mystery, moral questions.

He and Quinteros make Denis' humanity and misery so palpable that Rantes' otherworldly aura is enhanced. The details of Denis' wasted life are expertly realized: his fussily impeccable modern home, his dissolved marriage and empty weekends with his children, the sadness and vacancy with which he interviews his patients.

Denis is the man who's given up; Rantes is the idealist. And we realize slowly that Denis is trapped irresolvably--desperately wanting to believe in Rantes, desperately wanting him to fail and be defeated, comfortable only in his own withered isolation. Cut off from life, he cannot stand up to his superiors when they take the measures that may kill Rantes, that may destroy his own dream.

The story transpires mostly within Denis' consciousness; every time Subiela cuts away from him there's a feeling of panicky oddness, of moorings slipped. But it's an index of the movie's strength that it would work equally well if we were convinced that Rantes and Beatriz were totally mad. These characters, in performances mapped out to the last inch by director and actors, burn themselves into your consciousness.

"Man Facing Southeast" is a tragedy of faith and betrayal, and it works because of the actors. Subiela's style is always best at its quietest: simple shots of the people in the preternatural stillness of the asylum--on the grounds, in the sterile offices, in hallways shiveringly blank.

Ironically, in the film's big set-piece--Rantes taking the baton at an outdoor performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, intercutting with the inmate's revels--you feel a certain loosening. The cutting and staging seem more obvious; even the performance of the symphony is mediocre. It's a scene almost any strong American director, with a budget, might have brought off with more panache.

Yet few of them could have achieved the power, intensity and control of Soto's and Quinteros' acting. Here Subiela gets true cinematic poetry. Here, beyond any predictability in the story, he's able to suggest a moral plague, spiritual rot and desiccation, underlying certain areas of modern life. Looking at these faces--the way they seem set irrevocably in patterns of belief and skepticism, idealism and betrayal, love and death--you get a chill of recognition. It's useless to ask what might happen if someone as Christlike as Rantes came to Earth and appeared in a madhouse; you know that the resolution we see here might be the kindest fate that would befall him.

'MAN FACING SOUTHEAST' A FilmDallas presentation of a Cinequanon Films production. Executive producer Lujan Pflaum. Writer-director Eliseo Subiela. Camera Ricardo De Angelis. Music Pedro Aznar. Art director Abel Facello. Editor Luis Cesar D'Angiolillo. With Lorenzo Quinteros, Hugo Soto, Ines Vernengo, Cristina Scaramuzza.

Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

Times-rated: Mature (nudity).

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