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Having now experienced two years' worth of the Chicago International Film Festival, I'm not the least bit surprised to learn that the 25th-anniversary version, the largest to date, is starting on Thursday, October 12, three days before "opening night." We'll have plenty to say about this event when it gets fully under way next week; for the moment, here are reviews of the four films to be shown on Thursday, written by Gerald Peary, Ronnie Scheib, Barbara Scharres, and John Stevenson; films preceded by an asterisk (*) are recommended.

The Thursday films will be shown at the Music Box, 3733 N. Southport, and the University of Chicago, 1212 E. 59th St.; ticket prices are $6, $5 for Cinema/Chicago members. For further information, call 644-3456. --Jonathan Rosenbaum

*Jesus of Montreal

Denys Arcand had his first worldwide hit in 1986, with the intellectual sex comedy The Decline of the American Empire, although this smart and witty Quebec director is no novice. A well-known name in Canadian film since a notorious banned sociopolitical documentary in 1970, Arcand turned to fiction features and has become one of the sharpest and most irreverent observers of North American culture and middle-class values working today. In Jesus of Montreal, Daniel, a young unemployed actor, is hired by a priest with patron-of-the-arts pretensions to revive a wheezy 50s passion play for performance on a mountainside above Montreal. What the priest doesn't anticipate is the obsession with the project that Daniel develops. Recruiting a disparate band of actors, he discards the old script and creates a multimedia performance piece grounded in the latest Middle Eastern research and awash in modern doubts concerning faith and divinity. Enraged church officials try to shut the show down, while trend-sniffing critics and talk-show hosts hail it as the city's hottest ticket in avant-garde theater, making Daniel, who portrays Jesus, an instant celebrity. Arcand presents this as satire, and it can be read in any number of ways--as a battle between the sacred and the profane, the personal and the commercial, or censorship and freedom. There are some truly hilarious moments, including a wicked deadpan parody of auditions for a beer commercial, and a sequence in which Daniel's actors scandalize their patron with an improvised string of mocking skits, the most memorable being "Kabuki Passion Play." However, underlying this story with its obvious parallels between Daniel's newfound career and the public life of Jesus is the director's serious questioning of the nature of belief in contemporary life. It's a risky move for Arcand commercially: the hip, upwardly mobile audience that has adored his earlier japes at modern sex may be less comfortable with an unabashed acknowledgment of spiritual conflict. The actual performance of the play goes on long enough to border on the polemical, but it's not a terrible price to pay for the film's melodramatic and quite powerful ending. (BS) (Music Box, 7:00)

Ivan and Alexandra

There could be no gentler, friendlier introduction to the Bulgarian cinema than veteran director Ivan Nitschev's childhood memoir of life under Stalin. His 11-year-old protagonist Ivan, the boyish voice of Marxist revolution on Sofia radio, becomes totally disillusioned when the girl of his dreams, tall and lanky Alexandra, is ostracized at school because her father is labeled a traitor to communism. When she is expelled from the Young Pioneers, young Ivan chooses to stick by her. "I feel I owe it to myself to understand what happened during the Stalinist period," Nitschev has said. "Sadness, humor, creative spirit--all are equally important elements. The film is dedicated to all our children, with the hope that such things will never recur." The film is simple, touching, humane. Its best sequences, like the chorus of guitar-strumming local studs singing, "Sofia! Oh, Sofia!" in homage to Bulgaria's metropolis, are as poetic as the early, small-town Fellini of I vitelloni. (GP) (Univ. of Chicago, 7:00)

*Yaaba

Idrissa Ouedraogo's first feature film, The Choice, chronicling the long trek of a family forced by drought to leave their home, was a film about displacement. His second, Yaaba, on the other hand, is about having a place in the world. A young boy and girl, playing on the outskirts of their small Burkina Faso village, encounter an old woman who is for no apparent reason treated by the villagers as a witch and blamed for all the evils that befall them. The boy is openly drawn to the old woman, first by curiosity, then by admiration, and finally by love (as expressed by the film's title, which means "grandmother" in Moorea). Their relationship, frowned upon by the entire village, soon becomes the axis of his changing perspective as he begins to see the familiar components of his life from without.

This view is of necessity also that of the audience. But due to the disconcerting directness of Ouedraogo's story telling and that of the villagers themselves, the boy's questioning of the conventional wisdom of his society takes place within a calm acceptance that neither demands nor precludes change.

This directness also breeds an intimacy, a sense of familiarity. By the film's end we know every mud-bricked courtyard and intersection of the tiny village, we know who lives or might appear there, we know the shape and texture of each water jug and wooden bowl, the walk, habits, and gestures of each villager, as we might know the faces and contours of our own hometown. And since this ambivalence of familiarity and strangeness reflects the boy's coming to consciousness, our view from without belongs not to ethnology but to memory. (RS) (Univ. of Chicago, 9:15)

Silkroad

This lush panoramic historical epic, set in 11th-century China and directed by Junya Sato (The Go Masters), features picturesque battles, a mysterious woman bought and freed, a beautiful princess saved from death only to kill herself, a rough-hewn warrior, a handsome hero who must undergo many changes of fortune--and that's only the first hour out of 143 minutes. The product of no less than five Japanese production companies, this behemoth although very much a Japanese film also featured cooperation by the Chinese army as well as cofinancing, marking the first time China has invested in a foreign film. All the romance and action is framed by a narrator who appears at the beginning and end, telling us of the great store of 11th-century scrolls discovered 100 years ago near the central-Chinese city of Dun Huang, once a nexus of the silk-trading routes between Europe and Asia, and relating a fictional account of how the scrolls came to be there. (My guess is that this odd framing device, with its emphasis on the great historical value of these documents, was inserted at the request of the film's Chinese sponsors.) Given all this, what more could you ask for? Well, art and real passion, maybe. But then, who needs these when you've got noble warriors, cruel rulers, treacherous traders, secret treasures, hidden scrolls, doomed love, and male bonding, all wrapped up in a really big sand-and-sword production? (JS) (Music Box, 9:30)

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