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AFI's Euro Fest Stresses Quality Over Quantity

June 19, 1988|KEVIN THOMAS

Phew! For the film festival weary, relief is on the horizon.

The American Film Institute's fifth European Community Film Festival, opening Friday, has only 14--count 'em--14 new films on its one-week schedule. Stressing quality over quantity, the program is a stark contrast to other festivals, trying to pack in too many pictures in too little time, which inevitably means a lessening of standards and viewer overload.

Euro Fest, to be staged at the Monica 4-Plex in Santa Monica, has the added attractions of repeat screenings of all its films, a number of significant feature directorial debuts, and a venue with plenty of convenient parking.

Of the 12 films available for preview, only one, "The Cruel Embrace" from Belgium, can't be recommended, but even it is not without merit. The others range from the highly accessible to the quite demanding.

One of the most difficult but impressive offerings, "The Journey, the Land," is from Luxembourg; it's surprising that the tiny duchy produces any films at all, let alone one as sophisticated and soaringly ambitious as this one--but then Luxembourg was represented in the last Euro Fest with the stunning "Gwyncilla, Legend of the Dark Ages."

Euro Fest concludes strongly with two films from Spain, "The House of Bernarda Alba" and "La Senyora," which whet appetites for the UCLA Film Archives' tribute to Pedro Almodovar and its retrospective of the Spanish cinema, which commences June 30.

Film programmers Eddie Cockrell and Ken Wlaschin are opening the festival with their most widely appealing films, the ones most likely to receive a substantial American release.

Friday: "The Dressmaker" (United Kingdom, 1 & 7:30 p.m.) and "Felix" (West Germany, 3:30 and 9:30 p.m.).

Jim O'Brien, co-director of the 15-hour "Jewel in the Crown" series, makes his feature directorial debut with "The Dressmaker," which John McGrath adapted from Beryl Bainbridge's novel about a 17-year-old (Jane Horrocks) whose wartime romance with an American GI thrusts her into a conflict between her two very different guardian-aunts, the prim and proper dressmaker Nellie (Joan Plowright) and the fun-loving but frustrated Margo (Billie Whitelaw). All the performances are superlative in this most unpredictable picture, but for Whitelaw it is a special triumph, leaving you to imagine what a wonderful Blanche Du Bois she would be.

Like Dorris Dorrie's scintillating "Men . . . ," "Felix" takes a wry and amusing look at the male animal, West German style, as its pleasant-looking, spoiled blond hero (Ulrich Tukur, a gifted farceur ) struggles to recover from his wife's abrupt departure in a headlong pursuit of women. Each of his experiences is written and directed by a prominent woman director, and the best is by Margarethe von Trotte in a delightfully droll change of pace from her usual high seriousness. It's the episode in which Felix has a charming encounter with the sympathetic but perplexingly unavailable Eva (Eva Mattes). Other contributors: Helma Sanders-Brahm, Helke Sander, Christel Buschmann.

Saturday : "Dandin" (France, 1 and 6:30 p.m.) and "A Boy From Calabria" (Italy, 3:30 and 8:45 p.m.). In his adaptation of Moliere's "George Dandin," Roger Planchon (in another impressive directorial debut) brings to the screen a rollicking, expansive joie de vivre characteristic of the classic French screen comedies. In a kind of Gallic variation on "The Taming of the Shrew," Pierre Brasseur, in the title role, has all our sympathy as a wealthy, middle-age farmer who marries above his station--and whose tempestuous young bride Zabou) is determined to make him pay for it. The glowing, pirouetting camera work is by Bernard Lutic.

Italy's veteran, understated master of genre Luigi Comencini brings a poignant simplicity and a mature compassion to the leisurely but lovely "A Boy From Calabria," about a poor adolescent (Santo Polimeno) determined to become a runner despite the formidable opposition of his father (Diego Abatatuono) who wants him to concentrate on getting an education. The boy, however, is steadfastly encouraged by an avuncular bus driver (Gian Carlo Volonte, in a mellow portrayal that is in sharp contrast to his usual intense heroes).

Next Sunday: "Rami and Juliet" (Denmark, 1 and 6 p.m.) and "The Children of Helidona" (Greece, 3:30 and 8 p.m.). Erik Clausen's "Rami and Juliet," a critically acclaimed work that has been described as "a combined paraphrase" of "Romeo and Juliet" and "West Side Story" and set in a lower middle-class Copenhagen suburb, was unavailable for preview. Sophie Grabol (who was Gaugin's model in "Wolf at the Door") plays a gas station attendant in love with a Palestinian laborer (Saleh Malek).

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