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It's No Cannes, But Cleveland Filmfest Reaches New Heights

Screenings from 27 countries include stories about youth

Sailing through its 21st year, the Cleveland International Film Festival has come of age.

In a city that doesn't boast as much filmmaking as industry-watchers would like, moviegoing became a finely developed art this month as spectators poured into town for 11 days of cinema from around the world. No fewer than 27 countries were represented on-screen at this year's event, which offered a level of programming quality that many a larger filmfest would find difficult to beat.

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Confirming a trend visible at other festivals in the past couple of years, Cleveland's lineup featured a number of movies about young people, including some due shortly in theaters.

This is good news, since it suggests that issues of youth and family are prominent in today's cultural consciousness on an international level.

Perhaps the best of this bunch, "The Quiet Room," centers on a seven-year-old girl who's hit on an unusual response to her parents' constant arguing: If talking causes so many problems, she simply won't talk at all. And if her family gets upset about this, maybe they'll stop bickering and think about important things, like building a healthy emotional atmosphere in their household. Directed by Australia-based filmmaker Rolf de Heer, the picture steers a steady course between seriousness and humor, gaining great richness from a remarkable performance by Celine O'Leary, its very young star.

France is the setting of "Mondo," the equally offbeat tale of a young boy who shows up in a Mediterranean city with no home, family, or education to call his own. Far from depressed about his situation, he manages to live a meager but adventurous life with a little help from the many friends he picks up wherever his travels take him. Algerian-born filmmaker Tony Gatlif tells Mondo's story with few words but many eloquent images, celebrating both the mysteries of childhood and the kindness of strangers in a mere 80 minutes. While it's too slender to be called a major movie, it's as likable as they come.

"Mondo" deals not only with childhood but also the challenges of being a stranger in a strange land, and this theme figured in stories about somewhat older characters, too.

The hero of "Salut Cousin!" is a young Algerian who arrives in Paris on a three-day errand - to pick up a suitcase of merchandise for his boss back home - and gets mixed up with a wildly disreputable relative whose hare-brained schemes almost ruin both of them. Between its colorful and comical moments, filmmaker Merzak Allouache makes earnest points about the difficulties faced by immigrants in places where mutual understanding may be more the exception than the rule.

Similar themes run through "Bolshe Vita," about three young Russian men who get stuck in Hungary while trying to reach the West as communism collapses all around them. Multiculturalism rules in this Hungarian-German coproduction, whose characters speak any number of languages while coping with problems universal enough to be instantly recognized by moviegoers anywhere.

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Other offerings in the Cleveland program tackled a wide range of topics. Among the movies about to be released or already playing in theaters, high-profile items included Chen Kaige's sumptuous "Temptress Moon," about family and political intrigues in China a century ago; and Olivier Assayas's hilarious "Irma Vep," about a Hong Kong actress appearing in a French movie production being made by the world's most disorganized director.

More young characters appear in "Hide and Seek," by Su Friedrich, a thoughtful look at childhood and sexuality that mixes fiction and documentary techniques; "Childhood's End," by Jeff Lipsky, a bittersweet round of romantic relationships in a Midwestern community; "johns," by Scott Silver, an acerbic look at street hustlers; and one of the most popular selections, "Love & Other Catastrophes," a frisky look at randy Australian college students that marks an auspicious debut for director Emma-Kate Croghan.

Cleveland also got its first look at the amusing "Waiting for Guffman," already on view in some areas, and three French movies of varying quality: "The Ceremony," veteran director Claude Chabrol's chilling melodrama about murderous class tensions; "The Eighth Day," worth seeing mainly for its unusual performances; and "A Self-Made Hero," an ironic study of France's lingering problems from the World War II era.

And don't forget "The Graduate," reissued for its 30th anniversary and still as biting a social satire as Hollywood has to offer. Clevelanders loved it, and so will others as it travels to screens across the United States in weeks to come.

* Cleveland International Film Festival attractions due soon in American theaters include 'Love & Other Catastrophes,' beginning March 28; 'Childhood's End,' April 4; 'Temptress Moon,' April 18; 'Mondo,' April 25; and 'Irma Vep,' April 30. Others, including 'The Quiet Room,' 'The Graduate,' 'The Eighth Day,' 'Waiting for Guffman,' and 'The Ceremony,' have already opened in some areas.

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