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JUNE 5, 2000: 

The Idiots

This 1998 Lars von Trier film was his first offering in the Dogma 95 school of cinema purity that he helped espouse (its concession to that movement is cinematography that seems to have been shot by an idiot), and it has garnered a reputation for awfulness that's not entirely deserved. A bunch of bourgeois malcontents form a group whose idea of rebellion is to act moronically in public (hey, haven't they watched American daytime TV?) -- they "spass" like "retards." Unfortunately, their antics can't match those of an average sixth-grader let loose in a cafeteria, and their philosophy of anti-conformity and anti-sentimentality proves the height of sentimental conformity. Although some characters and scenes verge on poignancy and humor -- the one genuine laugh comes when one of the idiots gets the tables turned in a key meeting at his advertising agency -- the film confuses purifying stupidity with tiresome banality. For a real sample of the redeeming power of human extremity, of the divine idiot within us all, see Trier's own Breaking the Waves. Better yet, rent The Three Amigos. -- Peter Keough

Dream of Light

Jacques Rivette's La belle noiseuse was a four-hour meditation on the relationship between an artist and his model. Here Spanish director Víctor Erice spends half the time on the same subject, but instead of Emmanuelle Béart his model is a shapely quince tree. And Dream of Light is the more moving and visually rapturous achievement -- even though realist painter Antonio López's method is torturously painstaking and his relation to his model more like bondage and discipline. He frames the tree with rods and strings and plumb lines and inserts spikes into the ground to place his feet so he can align his point of view over the months he labors on his canvas. He erects a canopy over his head to protect himself and the tree from the elements; he marks the leaves with white paint to measure the distance they droop with the weight of the ripening fruit. His impossible dream is to capture the tree at its height of beauty and in ideal light before the fruit drops off. Interrupting him are visits from his wife and daughters and fellow painter Enrique Gran, a brawny fellow much like Anthony Quinn's Gauguin, who reminisces with him about their days as passionate students in love with their craft, reliving lost moments even as the one Antonio tries to capture eludes him.

While López is losing his battle for the light, Erice is winning his. With minimal elements -- the painter, the tree, the canvas, a handful of visitors, and a radio providing classical music and reports on the Gulf War -- he weaves together a sumptuous tapestry. As in his masterpiece, The Spirit of the Beehive, Erice taps into the nature of obsession and purity and transforms it into a dream of light. -- Peter Keough

Donald's Last Dance

Featuring current and former members of Boston band the Slip, Adam Mutterperl's film follows the efforts of five high-school buddies, a couple years on, to reunite for the summer and resurrect their group, the Donald Avocado. They convene in a southern New England house and then . . . nothing much happens. There're some funny moments, and the take on post-break-up malaise is spot on. But even the intercut clips of the actual band performances -- replete with goofy preppies in the audience getting down with their bad selves -- don't create a lot of excitement.

Perhaps my visceral aversion to the kind of groovy jam music that figures so heavily here colored my impression. Donald's Last Dance is good for what it is: a locally made 16mm feature by a novice filmmaker. The dialogue is well written, the camera work shows flashes of originality, and the characters are likable and believable. The acting is so good, I suspect, because these guys are friends in real life. (Writer/director/producer/former Slip bass player Mutterperl brings a manic-nerdy charm to his lead role.) Like a lengthy jam, Donald's Last Dance entertains while it lasts, but that's as far as it goes. Midnight Friday at the Coolidge Corner. -- Mike Miliard

Baya of the Mountains

Revenge is drama's oldest and guiltiest pleasure and a mainstay of popular cinema. It takes strange shape, however, in Algerian director Azzedine Meddour's 1997 period epic. Talk about delay of gratification -- a lifetime passes before we're reminded that there's a bad guy waiting to get his. At the beginning, Baya (Djamila Amzal), a legendary beauty who ran off to marry a poor Berber, scrounges through a misty potato field with her fellow villagers for sustenance. They've been uprooted by the local feudal lord, whose son, an old flame of hers, kills Baya's husband. The villagers settle down to transform a barren mountain into a viable new community, and Baya patiently raises her son to avenge his father's death. She's a feminist rebel of sorts, if a passive-aggressive one.

A knowledge of 19th-century Algerian history would help in following all this, as Meddour's efforts at exposition and narrative tend to be clumsy. In detail and imagery, though, he demonstrates a shrewd eye. The arduous process of planting wheat in unyielding soil that we see makes the lush harvest that follows all the more satisfying. And the repeated images of lanterns floating downstream and sunlight pouring into sealed rooms tell more than the tale itself of the cost and reward of desire too long denied. -- Peter Keough

8-1/2 Women

What makes Peter Greenaway think he has enough in common with Federico Fellini to invoke Fellini's most celebrated work? Well, they do share a Renaissance-painterly way with the camera, a Swiftian horror of the human body, a contempt for men, and an attitude toward women of bafflement and awe. Of course, Greenaway is a sadistic misanthrope, and his idea of paying tribute to women means (to paraphrase Steve Martin) placing them on a pedestal high enough that he can look up their dresses.

Greenaway's protagonists here -- a grieving, recently widowed banker (John Standing) and his hedonistic son (Matthew Delamere) -- are inspired by the erotic variety of women in Fellini's film to acquire their own harem, which consists of the title number of women (one's a legless waif named Giulietta -- get it?), but they find themselves no more able to control their concubines than they can the earthquakes that plague them wherever they go. To the men (and to Greenaway?), women are a foreign land, like Japan (where much of the action takes place), that one may visit but never truly comprehend. Even Greenaway cultists may think he handled these ideas more satisfyingly in Drowning by Numbers. Everyone else should pass up this Freudian hogwash -- and the misuse of such actresses as Toni Collette, Amanda Plummer, Vivian Wu, and Polly Walker -- in favor of Fellini's own much funnier ode to sexual confusion. -- Gary Susman

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