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FOLKS WITH a pronounced fear of big cities or travel abroad might be advised to steer clear of Maria Venuto's new videotape, "The Tourist," when it screens at Hallwalls on Saturday. It will only confirm their deepest, darkest terror.

On the other hand, they'll be missing out on a truly inventive piece of visual storytelling, a brief but unforgettable journey into one woman's disintegrating psyche.

On paper, the premise of "The Tourist" reads like some sort of classic New York joke: Did you hear the one about the German tourist who got lost at JFK and ended up living there?

But Venuto is deadly serious in her imaginative reconstruction of a real-life tragedy. Working from a 1993 newspaper account providing only the sketchiest of details -- the woman's luggage contained an unused return ticket home and several unmailed postcards -- Venuto has fleshed out the story with spine-tingling accuracy.

It's one of those tall tales so far-fetched it could only be true.

At the same time, though, Venuto avoids all the pitfalls of TV movie-of-the-week accounts "inspired by actual events." There is no easy moralizing about the kindness or cruelty of strangers, no string section on the soundtrack to spell out when we're intended to cry or laugh. And there is no role for Valerie Bertinelli.

In her place, we find Sinje Ollen in the title role: a nameless, evidently disturbed young woman who has left the shelter of her parents' home in Germany to assert her independence in a new land.

The journey is doomed from the outset; the minute she sets foot in the airport, looking preposterously coquettish in a sterile world of strangers, it's clear she's headed for trouble.

And that trouble arrives almost instantaneously, in the form of a taxi driver (Lawrence Woshner), who offers to take her to Manhattan for 150 bucks. Her English is severely limited, but when she refuses to hand over more than a twenty, he steals her cash and throws her out of the cab.

So it's back to the airport, where she sleeps on the floor and roams the corridors in a daze. A day into her stay, she writes the first of several postcards to Mom and Dad: "No one thinks I can take care of myself, but here I am in New York and I'm having a wonderful time."

Three days later, still trapped at JFK, she writes, "I've been busy every minute, seeing something new."

She's referring not to the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building, but the noses of planes, the conveyor belt of the baggage pickup area, and the public restroom, where (in one of the tape's few moments of comic relief) she is daunted by one of those electronically activated faucets.

Venuto's camera and Ollen's expressive face compliment each other beautifully in the series of scenes depicting the anonymous woman's invisible life amid these mundane marvels.

It's an urban horror story they're telling, but the terror is all the more real because it is underplayed. Ollen's eyes alone convey an extraordinary amount of information about her character, as she drifts from wide-open wonder into utter madness.

She's a major find, if I may indulge in a lingo not usually associated with independent video productions, and the writer/director wisely entrusts her to carry the story through her physical presence.

Venuto's own touch is equally subtle: A bit of slow motion here, a spinning camera there, and a few carefully chosen instances of heightened sound (constructed by Bill Seery) are all she needs to set the vertiginous tone.

Shot on location in the midst of typical airport hustle and bustle, "The Tourist" has the look of a particularly intimate documentary, but it carries the weight of finely crafted fiction. The tape goes so deep into the autistic world of its subject that it sticks with you for days.

Venuto, a Buffalo native who actually made it past Kennedy and relocated in New York several years ago, makes a stylistic leap with this latest work. Earlier tapes (a selection of them will be screened on Saturday) took an essayistic approach to their topics, including electromagnetic radiation and the medical establishment. While these were impressive in their clarity and wit, "The Tourist" is closer to the terrain of the short story, suggesting previously uncharted emotional territory.

I'm tempted to call it a breakthrough, but what it really feels like is the first glimmer of something yet to come. I can't wait to see where Venuto and Ollen each travel next.

The Tourist

Video conceived and directed by Maria Venuto, to be presented by the artist along with other short tapes.

Saturday at 8 p.m. in Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, 2495 Main St. (835-7362).

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