Art and the urban warrior

26th April 1996 at 01:00
Robin Buss casts his eye over the latest cinematic crop of rape, drug abuse and shotgun slayings. So what else is new?

Glasgow will never be Edinburgh, but it has made an effort in recent years to improve its reputation, with the result that it now tends to evoke not one image, but two: a discordant collage in which rival tribes of football supporters rage around the Burrell Collection and the art nouveau elegance of Charles Rennie Mackintosh sits beside broken bottles at closing time on Saturday night. Gillies MacKinnon's film, set in the late 1960s, combines both, as the two Glasgows contend for the soul of its adolescent hero.

Lex is 13 years old and the youngest of three brothers. The oldest, Bobby, is a semi-literate gang member, plagued by dreams of his own death. The middle brother, Alan, studies art and is only drawn into violence by accident when the brothers have to look for protection from a local gang leader, Charlie Sloan. Charlie's price for his help is for Alan to paint his face into a group portrait at the City Art Gallery.

The only girl in the story is involved with the hard men on both sides, as well as with Alan, and the plot concerns the divided loyalties, betrayals and confusing choices of adolescence. Persuasively acted by a largely unknown cast, and made on a modest budget, Small Faces is one of the most surprising and intelligent films of the year.

Tim Robbins' Dead Man Walking is also, in its way, surprising: a film about a controversial issue capital punishment that manages to avoid preaching and superficiality. Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon) agrees to become spiritual adviser to a murderer facing execution (Sean Penn) and, over the final week before he dies by lethal injection, persuades him to accept his guilt and shows him how to face death with dignity. At the same time, Sister Helen herself is forced to confront the reality of the crime he has committed and its effect on the families of his victims. No one involved in a debate on the issue could ask for a clearer statement of the arguments, in a powerful and finely-acted film.

Claude Chabrol's La Ceremonie and Claude Sautet's Nelly et M Arnaud are among their directors' most characteristic works. The first is a psychological thriller from a short novel by Ruth Rendell (A Judgement in Stone), transported to Northern Britanny, where a maid (Sandrine Bonnaire) tries to disguise her illiteracy from her middle-class employers, but forms a lethal friendship with the local postmistress (Isabelle Huppert). Nelly et M Arnaud is a gentle story about a retired colonial official (Michel Serrault) who engages a secretary (Emmanuelle Beart) to type his memoirs. The nature of their feelings for one another and what might become of them, are the whole subject of a film delicately balanced between pleasure and pain. Students of the language will pick up a lot from both films about French life, but find more material for discussion in Chabrol's grim Hitchcockian tale.

There is no violence in Nelly et M Arnaud, but the other three films include headbuttings, stabbings, rape, lethal injection and a number of shotgun slayings to account for their "15" certificates. To find out what could be even worse than that, we have Josiane Balasko's story of a timid wife who gets revenge on her unfaithful husband by sleeping with another woman and bringing her to live with them.

As well as having the distinction of an "18" certifcate, this moderately amusing, not very naughty sex comedy is the subject of an experiment by its distributors, who are adopting the continental habit of releasing it en exclusivite in its original language, with subtitles, then for a wider audience dubbed in English, under the title French Twist. Whether or not this will catch on, as a method to get larger audiences for popular foreign-langauge films, remains to be seen, but it could be bad news for language teachers.

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