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SCREENING ROOM

Headlong into the darkness of a world torn apart by war

May 20, 2004|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

In Jeff Burr's strikingly original and eerily compelling World War II picture, "Straight Into Darkness," the adventures of two American soldiers are envisioned with a vivid sense of authenticity, both physically and psychologically.

The film, which will be shown tonight by the American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theater, has a familiar outline: Two American soldiers, Deming (Scott MacDonald) and Losey (Ryan Francis), the first violent, the second gentle, have gone AWOL. Then they are captured, only to escape after a hair-raising calamity involving a minefield. Now they're left to make their way through a snow-covered forest in France during the final winter of the war.

Burr's film has a surreal quality that perfectly expresses the paranoia engulfing the men as they emerge from the forest to a rural landscape strewn with widely isolated ruined structures. War is hell, a living nightmare; Burr suggests that it can also bristle with tension and suspense. The soldiers' encounters, which will lead them to redemption, culminate in a lengthy and ambitious sequence in which a group of children and their teachers (Linda Thorson and David Warner) are holed up in a large abandoned structure.

So intense is Burr's visual imagination that it can sustain literary and religious allusions and sentimental flashbacks in Losey's mind of the pretty girl back home that might seem heavy-handed in lesser hands. Not for Burr are the usual antiwar sentiments: He goes straight for the exhilaration of classic tragedy.

Nights with Fellini

The Cinematheque's "Dreams, Longings and Memories -- The Cinema of Federico Fellini," an eight-day complete retrospective of the director's work, commences Friday with Fellini's first feature, "Variety Lights" (1950), which he co-directed with Alberto Lattuada, which will be followed by the classic "8 1/2," starring Marcello Mastroianni as a film director in crisis.

Fresh and timeless, "Variety Lights," which will be presented on a new 35-millimeter print, glows with Fellini's vital talent. Like a preliminary sketch for a vast and splendid mural, it unfolds Fellini's wonderful vision of life in all its joy and sadness, hope and fear, triumph and defeat, that emerges fully in the later movies.

Set against a background of show business at its seediest, "Variety Lights" tells of Checco, a small-time, middle-aged vaudevillian who falls for a rural beauty contest winner with ambitions for stardom. Her sex appeal saves his tawdry troupe from imminent dissolution and almost carries him to the big time.

The significance of the film's simple, even predictable story lies in the opportunity it gives Fellini to illustrate the paradox of illusions. His people see themselves as great -- though undiscovered -- entertainers and not as the second-rate -- or worse -- performers they really are.

Because of Fellini's compassion for his characters, who could so easily and cruelly be ridiculed, pathos emerges from his humor. Indeed, there's more than a tinge of Chaplin in Peppino De Felippo's superb portrayal of Checco, whom Fellini respects both as a man and as an artist as much he does the director in "8 1/2."

No less impressive is Carla Del Poggio's preposterous Liliana, the shallow, selfish contest winner who mistakes beauty for talent. Waiting in the wings is Giulietta Masina, Checco's forgiving mistress, an innocent waif who wants to believe each of her lover's infidelities is his last.

The weekend at the Cinematheque is chockablock with Fellini classics, but the maestro never made a film not worth seeing. Not to be overlooked is Fellini's second feature, "The White Sheik" (1952), in a new 35-millimeter print. While on her honeymoon in Rome, a bride (Brunella Bovo) takes the opportunity to escape her husband (Leopoldo Trieste) to pursue the man of her dreams, the White Sheik (Alberto Sordi), the star of a series of photo comic books. This is the film in which Masina created perhaps her greatest role, the wistful prostitute Cabiria, which she would reprise at full length in the 1957 "Nights of Cabiria."

*

Screenings

American Cinematheque

Alternative Screen

* "Straight Into Darkness," today, 7:30 p.m., Lloyd E. Rigler Theatre at the Egyptian, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. (323) 466-FILM.

"Dreams, Longings and Memories -- The Cinema of Federico Fellini"

* "Variety Lights," Friday, 7 p.m.; "8 1/2," Friday, 9:15 p.m.; "The White Sheik," Saturday, 7:30 p.m.; "Nights of Cabiria," Sunday as the second of a double feature with "The Swindle," which begins at 6. Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. (323) 466-FILM. www.americancinematheque.com

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