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STEPPE CHILD
THE DRAMA OF A RUSSIAN TORN BETWEEN BLEAKNESS AND SUNSHINE

MEMORY, spirituality, love, loss and Italy make up the landscape of two new video releases, Andrei Tarkovsky's prize-winning "Nostalghia" ("Nostalgia") and "The English Patient," which we've all seen, loved or hated. Both are as grim and portentous as a bad date. After five hours straight with these little beauties, I wanted to curl up in a closet with a can of Drano.

"Nostalghia," a joint 1983 Italian-Russian production, is one of the finest films directed by Tarkovsky, who died too young in 1986. He is widely held to be Russia's most brilliant filmmaker since Sergei Eisenstein. You'll know why, even before the opening credits give way to Tarkovsky's claustrophobic, crumbling, haunting Italy-of-(his)-mind.

The film is emotionally autobiographical and innovative in plot structure, with arresting and somber cinematography a la Ingmar Bergman. It reflects the Swedish director's nearly pathological affect -- the one before he had the mystical epiphany described in "Fanny and Alexander." Like Bergman, Tarkovsky employs the external landscape to reflect the soulscape of his protagonist, who is, alas, no Clarabell.

The principle character is a poet named Andrei Gortchakov. Andrei is traveling through Italy researching the life of an 18th century Russian composer, accom-panied by his translator and guide Eugenia (Domiziana Giordano), a beautiful young woman with a head of breathtaking golden hair that quite literally sparkles whenever Tarkovsky allows the light to catch it. Andrei couldn't care less. He'd rather poke out his eyes than look upon her beautiful naked breast. Hmm.

The two arrive in a spa town complete with a hot sulfuric pool that burbles and steams like a hell-mouth. Here the poet meets a lunatic named Domenico (Erland Josephson, also a favorite of Bergman) who is notorious for having locked his family up in a miserable ruined barn for seven years to protect them from the evil world.

From beginning to end, Eugenia's directness, laughter, lightness and orientation toward the future plays off Andrei's persistent miasma. She attempts to seduce him, to bring him "out" in a sense, but he is drawn instead to Domenico's world, which in some way mirrors his own sense of reality. In a series of creepy dreams Andrei's nostalgia for his homeland, his wife and family are woven into his ambiguous attraction to Eugenia and the bright, sunny, disingenuous Italy she represents.

Andrei's psychic link to Domenico becomes flesh as he steps into a liminal space, the drained baths of St. Catherine, on Domenico's behalf. He carries a votive candle across the dangerous slimy rocks and through the dark, shallow pools in tribute to the saint. In the process, Andrei has an awakening of sorts in which he honors his own sorrow and rejects the sense that what one loves -- a country, a woman, a sense of being -- is replaceable or curable by the intervention of its opposite, however charming.

You will notice a good many Ingmar Bergmanisms in the film, particularly in the silent, motionless, bleak and white landscape of memory. "Nostalghia" is best understood in the light of the director's impending exile from his homeland. It gives voice to the profound depression and deep longing that her wandering children feel for Mother Russia. The historical and literary canon is replete with tales of Russian exiles moored in a kind of emotional tundra from which they simply cannot extricate themselves.

Should you want to bathe further in the Tarkovsky canon, try the brilliant "Offret" ("Sacrifice," 1986), his last film, an allegory about the End in which the director trolls the death and alienation behind Swedish ennui.

One of my co-workers referred to "The English Patient" as "oh, pul-eeeeeze . . . " She thought it was disjointed ("OK, we fast-forwarded a lot"), hyperromanticized and full of uncompelling characters. Others found it ecstatically romantic.

The film was directed by British playwright Anthony Minghella ("Truly Madly Deeply") from Michael Ondaatje's prize-winning novel about the claims that love and identity have on an individual.

In a grand and eloquent collage, Minghella whisks "our song" with a dirge and smears the whole thing all over North Africa and Tuscany, two of Europe's fave mystical love sites. It's one long, rapturous, cinemagraphically splendid package, just thick with dunes and (compelling or uncompelling) lovers. Think Lawrence of Arabia if he was hot and straight; Lawrence Durrell, Paul Bowles and midcentury Cairo; crisp linens, iced cocktails, lukewarm baths, sweat running down your back.

Minghella cuts back and forth from 1937 to 1944 over two gorgeous continents using segues of sound and image that subtly blend into and echo one another as the story slowly unwinds. Ondaatje's themes include the question of ownership -- of wife by husband, colonists by colonizers, citizen by his nation, of memory itself.

In a crumbling Italian monastery during the final days of World War II, a young shellshocked army nurse named Hana (Juliette Binoche) remains behind after her unit has pulled out in order to tend her doomed patient -- a brutally burned young "English" pilot (Fiennes) who may actually be a Hungarian count in love with deserts, Herodotus and a woman who belongs to another man.

Her patient gradually draws Hana to him by unveiling the story of his life, his lost identity and doomed love, through a series of tortured narratives (we call 'em flashbacks) that hold her in thrall. Oh, the human misery! It's a four-Kleenex swooner, if you're the type.

As the English patient spins his tragic tale, Hana begins a process of catharsis that helps her reconcile her own war losses. An old family friend appears on the scene along with a young Sikh sapper named Kip, to whom Hana is drawn. Through Kip, the question of cultural identity is further explored, and despite another series of tragic deaths, Hana realizes hope and is able to pursue life and love again.

As I said, some critics say the movie is overrated and sappy, but you sure can't beat the cast, which, besides Fiennes, Binoche and Thomas includes Willem Dafoe, Colin Firth and Naveen Andrews. However you look at it, "The English Patient" is a devastatingly beautiful and highly suggestive weeper about really good-looking white people with terrific clothes.

NOSTALGHIA 1983, no rating, 120 minutes, Italian and Russian with subtitles, Fox Lorber Home Video (in release)
THE ENGLISH PATIENT 1996, R, 162 minutes, Miramax Home Entertainment (in release).

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