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In `A Year of the Quiet Sun,' images do the talking

Although film is a visual language, lazy filmmakers often fall back on words. It takes courage to tackle a story in which dialogue must play a secondary part. Yet that's what Polish director Krzysztof Zanussi has done in ``A Year of the Quiet Sun,'' a gentle drama of love across the boundaries of nationality and speech. The story takes place just after World War II, in a territory given up by Germany and coming under Polish control. While victorious American soldiers happily prepare to return home, refugees drift in from eastward looking for a new place to settle.

Against this background we meet Norman, an American soldier who decides to stay in Europe as a minor helper in the war-crimes investigation. He isn't sure why he's lingering abroad, but apparently he fears that life in his old haunts couldn't be the same after what he has recently lived through. And we meet Emilia, a widowed Polish refugee trying to piece together her broken life and that of her old, infirm mother.

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Norman takes one look at Emilia and falls desperately in love -- smitten not by her physical qualities, but by a strength and resourcefulness he senses deep within her. She doesn't know quite how to respond, especially under the disorienting conditions of her current life. But she appreciates his warmth, his sensitivity, and his steadfast concern for her mother and herself. Together the three characters struggle for an accommodation to one another and to their treacherous, often harrowing environm ent.

So far, so good, except that neither Norman nor Emilia is a whiz at languages. Except for a few disconnected words and an occasional session with an amateur translator, they must communicate entirely through looks and gestures. This lends a poignant obstacle to their relationship, which still manages to grow more and more affectionate. And it lends a second layer of resonance to their story, which comes to symbolize the profound lack of mutual understanding between countries at key junctures of re cent history.

``A Year of the Quiet Sun'' begins with great promise. As played by American actor Scott Wilson, the character of Norman is refreshingly different from most movie protagonists: an introspective man whose quiet sincerity and maturity set him visibly apart from even his own friends and colleagues. The film avoids setting him up as heroic or superior, making it clear that he's no smarter than average and has no greater goals than settling on a farm with a good wife. But his unassuming ways seem genuine (he 's no Gary Cooper masking a star personality with aw-shucks mannerisms), and it's easy to empathize with him. Much of the same goes for Emilia, too, as she moves through her shattered surroundings with a natural grace and resilience that she never has to flaunt.

The movie never makes the most of its materials, though. Norman stops growing in depth and complexity by the halfway mark, and Wilson's performance bogs down in its own slow rhythms, repeating the hallmarks of his character without elaborating or revivifying them. Maja Komorowska and Hanna Skarzanka keep their characters more varied and vigorous, but they can't spark the whole film by themselves. What started as a rich and surprising story becomes slow and sentimental, until even the bittersweet climax has less impact than it should.

About five years ago, Zanussi released a movie called ``The Constant Factor,'' which stands as one of the most astonishing films from Eastern Europe -- or anywhere else -- in decades. The story of a young man's attempt to find a sense of control in the midst of turbulent human existence, it succeeded brilliantly at conveying ideas and mental states not just through words, but through images of shimmering intensity.

I've been waiting for Zanussi to work such wonders again, but I've been mostly disappointed in the other films he has sent to American screens. ``A Year of the Quiet Sun'' shows him to be still concerned with challenging human issues. But its inspiration flags too soon for the film to be counted a success.

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