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Fall means the end of summer escapism and brings wonderful cultural variety to tempt starved filmgoers.

Ousmane Sembene's "Guelwaar"--already described in my May column -- finally opened and may be the movie of the year. The Senegalese director unravels a complex story of political assassination, conflict between Muslims and Catholics, and flashbacks to the fight against colonialism, before drawing his material together in a powerful and healing conclusion.

Ironically, despite his demands for radical African independence, he makes splendid use of his education in French classical tragedy, allowing his characters to do battle in brilliant rhetorical exchanges. The content and style are far from commercial, but "Guelwaar" keeps one on the edge of one's seat.

"Samba Traore" (New Yorker Films) is the work of another African master, Idrissa Ouedraogo, from Burkina Faso, who works in a totally different, more purely cinematic style. He already has an international reputation for "Tilai" and "Yaaba," village dramas that observe traditional life patterns with unsentimental respect. His plots are minimal, dialogue is sparse, the landscape barren but beautiful, and characters express themselves by turns with humor, anger and pathos, but always directly. Images, not speeches, are important, and the villagers are so natural that it is hard to know which are professional actors.

The movie opens with a robbery at a gloomy gas station in the city. Two men take off with a bag of money. Someone shoots one of the thieves, but the other disappears with the money. We next see the successful thief riding a bus through the jungle.

It is Samba (Bakary Sangare), who is warmly greeted by his family and friends at his village, who insists on carrying his suitcase himself and is eager to become involved with the life around him. He plays a pipe his father gave him years ago and wins a donkey cart from his old friend, Salif. But when Samba is alone in his thatched hut, it becomes clear that his suitcase full of money is the source of hidden anxieties as well as naive hopes.

Although people notice that he spends freely, most seem prepared to accept vague accounts of the source of his wealth. Salif smiles as he asks Samba if he stole it, but does not pursue the subject. Ouedraogo is not analyzing the psychological antecedents of crime: we can only guess at what impelled Samba to robbery. The director is even quoted as saying, "I don't know whether Samba didn't commit a robbery just to get back home."

Certainly the figure we see is no hardened thug but a man still respectful of his parents and an older tradition. He buys cattle, which he generously gives to the village, and believes he is bringing progress to the area -- as well as profit to himself -- by starting a rustic bar where the men will congregate.

The movie is a gentle introduction to Burkina Faso culture: Everyone knows everyone else's business, and a sense of community survives. The other women smile knowingly when Samba starts to court Saratou, the beautiful single mother of a young son for whom he buys a bicycle. Dressed in the proper clothes to be worn on such a solemn occasion, he declares his love and asks Saratou to marry him. It is a moving scene of great dignity and blunt emotion.

Saratou is a down-to-earth woman who expresses herself with equal directness. Observing her husband's frequent nightmares, she asks him to tell the truth, but he refuses to talk about the past. When indications of a complicated childbirth force her to take a cart to the hospital, Samba's fear of being seen in the city leads him to abandon her, then to a deeper crisis of conscience.

There is a luminous goodheartedness in Ouedraogo's filmmaking. Deceptively simple, it is informed by a profound humanism that economically reveals contradictory traits even in secondary characters. A genuinely beautiful movie, "Samba Traore" offers a striking commentary on our crime-ridden society and the media that exploit our taste for violence.

Most people considered "The Age of Innocence" (Columbia), based on Edith Wharton's 1920 Pultizer Prize-winning novel of New York manners in the 1870s, a most unlikely project for Martin Scorsese, but the director of "Mean Streets" has been making forays out of Little Italy for some time.

The theme of repression must have attracted him. "The Age of Innocence" conveys the sense that the society's emphasis on externals is at the expense of an interior life.

Just as Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) and May Welland (Winona Ryder) are to announce their engagement, May's first cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), returns from Europe and a disastrous marriage. Newland rallies to the countess' defense against malicious gossip and the instinct of society to exclude her. He is drawn not only by the countess' beauty but by the casual way she mocks drawing-room rigidities.

Wharton wanted to show the emotional price her society -- in the final analysis, much narrower than that of Little Italy -- extracted of people, but her characters never suggest great depth. The vicious backbiting of the all-confident men, May's constantly radiant smile at the increasingly distracted Archer, and the good-humored authoritarianism of the overweight grandmother are further assets of a film that will extend Scorsese's reputation. Though "The Age of Innocence" is only a minor classic, the director preserves its central irony as the countess gradually comes to accept Archer's counsel and respect his values.

Early indications are that "The Joy Luck Club" (Hollywood Pictures), the first mainstream movie centering on Chinese-American life, will appeal to a broad audience. It seemed like an impossible project: Amy Tan's bestseller employed many disparate voices, including those of four mothers whose stories of their horrendous experiences in China help narrow the gulf between them and their largely Americanized daughters.

There is great power in the mother-daughter relationships, but the problems of the upwardly mobile younger generation seem pretty compared to what the mothers have gone through in China. Auntie Lindo, who had to use her wits to escape from an arranged marriage to an overgrown boy, is too demanding in her good intentions for her rebellious, chessplaying daughter, Waverly.

Most women will find emotional therapy in these mother-daughter encounters, but some men will wonder why the fathers are all but absent and the other men in the story are either villains or fools. I found "Joy Luck Club" effective, but fault it for making too insistent a claim on my emotions. Director Wayne Wang, admired for "Chang is Missing" and "Life is Cheap ... But Toilet Paper is Expensive," didn't want to make another "Chinese movie," but found the immigrant history condensed in Tan's book too important a challenge to turn down.

It's back to New York's Little Italy at the end of the 1940s for "Household Saints" (Fine Line Features), directed by Nancy Savoca, who also wrote the screenplay with husband Richard Guay, based on Francine Prose's novel. On one level, it's a straightforward story of three generations on Mulberry Street, but must be appreciated as a quirky mix of comic realism, wild fantasy and a mysterious suggestiveness about the meaning of goodness.

Savoca has real affection for her characters, though some older Italian-Americans may worry about the exaggerations of traditional folkways. The movie teases us with possibilities of miracles but insists that everything happened because, during a record heat wave, young butcher Joseph Santangelo (Vincent D'Onofrio) opened his refrigerated meat locker in the middle of a pinochle game, casting a spell on Lino Falconetti (Vincent Argo). Lino bets his daughter, Catherine, against a promise of more cold air and loses. "Man deals and God stacks the deck," says one of the pinochle players.

"Household Saints" has as many poignant moments as farcical ones. After Joe's mother, Carmela, dies, Catherine and Joe's daughter Teresa, precociously pious from an early age, becomes the movie's center. The young Teresa is concerned that the pope hasn't released the secret of Fatima. She can't absorb her mother's sane counsel to find the miraculous in everyday life. As a teenager, she wins a copy of St. Therese's Story of a Soul for her essay on atheistic communism and decides to be a nun. This prompts a furiously comic anticlerical tirade from her father, but the movie is not mocking the desire to perform household tasks for the love of God, even if it shows the untutored exaggerations in Teresa's understanding of sanctity.

"Household Saints" is fascinating in the conflicting emotions it evokes. And how can one not root for the first movie that lists a sausage consultant among its credits?

Room does not allow for another ethnic twist, but I urge you to see "Into the West" (Miramax), a rousing fairy tale adventure of two Irish boys and a mythical white horse. Directed by Mike Newell ("Enchanted April") and written by Jim Sheridan ("My Left Foot"), it tells the story of a traveling family whose father, drunkenly mourning his dead wife, has given up his title as king of the gypsies and brought his sons to live in a drab Dublin housing project.

There are farfetched details but you won't care. You'll be looking down on "settled people" and riding with the boys into the beautiful Irish countryside and emotional liberation.
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Author:Cunneen, Joseph
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Movie Review
Date:Oct 8, 1993
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