'Avalon' follows tribulations of an immigrant family in 0...

April 12, 1991|By Josh Mooney | Josh Mooney,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

'Avalon' follows tribulations of an immigrant family in 0) Baltimore

AVALON

RCA/Columbia Pictures Home Video

No price listed.

An artist who time and time again returns to the well of his own past and history for inspiration is a rare one indeed, especially in the context of big-time Hollywood film-making. So director Barry Levinson is to be applauded for setting yet another film in his home town of Baltimore -- crucially, the Baltimore of the past. His earlier films "Diner" and "Tin Men" looked at the city in the late 1950s and early '60s; this one, more ambitious but ultimately less satisfying than either of those, spans the years from before World War I to the '50s, when television encroached on both culture and the family.

"Avalon" is loosely based on Mr. Levinson's own family -- it concerns the trials and tribulations and, more to the point, the daily workings of an immigrant European Jewish family as they seek to establish themselves in America and watch, over the years, the inexorable disintegration of "family" as an important social/cultural unit.

Armin Mueller-Stahl, the talented actor from the former East Germany, plays the patriarch Sam, a Russian Jew who arrives in Baltimore in 1914 with his wife (Joan Plowright) and falls in love with America.

The usual drama of life and death unfolds at a relatively slow pace throughout. This is a sincere story which nevertheless cannot be as deeply felt by the audience as it was by the director.

JESUS OF MONTREAL

Orion Home Video

No price listed.

A Canadian film (in French with subtitles) that's primarily about the art of performance -- and it is the performances themselves that help lift it to transcendent heights.

Lothaire Bluteau plays Daniel, a young out-of-work actor who's hired by a Catholic priest to modernize his Montreal church's production of the Passion Play. It may be the Greatest Story Ever Told, but our priest knows his version needs some updating -- attendance has been dropping off. Daniel, from the beginning obviously Christ-like in his demeanor, is not at all what the priest bargained for. He decides to use recently uncovered archaeological evidence and computer analysis of the Talmud to radically rethink the plot of the Passion Play. His version will suggest, among other heretical notions, that Christ's father was a Roman soldier.

Meanwhile, Daniel sets out to find an acting group, and so convenes a group of misfits in much the same fashion as Christ rounded up his disciples.

Mr. Arcand satirizes much in his film -- advertising, the church, the hypocrisy of the powers-that-be -- and maintains the integrity of his vision throughout, never succumbing to the temptations of melodrama. This is an involving film -- it's not lighthearted fare, but it can be vastly entertaining.

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