A new breed of gentle films is taking over
The movie season is coming along nicely. After a generally poor crop in 1982, the screen is suddenly - well, not exactly swarming, but at least humming with fine new pictures. Attractions include the comedy of ''Local Hero,'' the domestic drama of ''Tender Mercies'' and ''Betrayal,'' the intrigue of ''The Year of Living Dangerously.''
It's good news for moviegoers. And more than that, it could be the beginning of a new boom in worthwhile films. Taken together, the pictures I've mentioned point to a couple of important trends.
First, all of them work against the usual dramatic formulas. They focus more on character than on story, stressing insights and ideas rather than quick thrills and manipulations. ''Betrayal'' is so antiplot that it tells its tale in reverse, starting with the end of a love affair and drifting back to the beginning. In different ways, the others also show a refreshing concern with subtlety and literacy - a far cry from the slam-bang style that has marked most recent hits.
Second, though all are English-language pictures, all were directed by non-Americans. Just as Broadway and Off Broadway have borrowed much of their energy from English sources lately, the current movie scene is benefiting enormously from overseas wit and savvy. ''Hero'' is the work of Scottish filmmaker Bill Forsyth, while ''Betrayal'' comes from English director David Jones. Peter Weir and Bruce Beresford, of ''Dangerously'' and ''Mercies'' respectively, hail from Australia.
What's behind this wave of gentle movies from non-Hollywood directors? A number of factors. For one, some national film industries - notably the British - have been laboring under financial limitations, with little funding available for flashy productions. Attention has been forced toward more intimate subjects and more modest treatments, and thoughtful filmmakers have made a virtue of this necessity.
Meanwhile, many filmgoers have been hungering for solid, intelligent fare that doesn't depend on action and special effects. For these viewers, the new emphasis on subtlety and understatement is as refreshing as a cool breeze - and their enthusiastic response could encourage still more activity along similar lines.
Where does the Hollywood establishment stand in relation to all this? As a rule, it's suspicious these days of movies that don't have at least one character from outer space, or enough mayhem so we won't notice. This helps explain why American directors are scarce when it comes to refined projects like those I've singled out, or last year's ''Missing,'' the Costa-Gavras drama which was reissued recently. Note also that the above films are receiving ''special'' treatment from their studios, being released gradually and selectively. That way , too much won't be lost if the type of viewers they're aimed at turn out to be so disillusioned that even a spate of excellent productions can't lure them back in force.
Still, the whole moviemaking scene could change, and change fast, if audiences greet the new, gentler films with enough gusto and box-office dollars. So far, signs are encouraging. ''Betrayal'' and ''Tender Mercies'' have opened strongly in New York, and ''The Year of Living Dangerously'' has held up fairly well since its release. Only the superb ''Local Hero'' is lagging, but good word of mouth could save it yet.
Come what may, it's cheering to find that talented filmmakers are still willing to put their energy into projects with worthy human and cinematic values. And such filmmakers aren't all from Europe or Australia; after all, some Hollywood veterans (in nondirectorial jobs) also helped create some of these pictures. In this column two weeks ago, ''Betrayal'' producer Sam Spiegel held up that unorthodox Pinter drama as a proud counterattack against current Hollywood practices. A week earlier, also in this space, ''Tender Mercies'' screenwriter Horton Foote expressed his conviction that nuance and simple humanity still have a place on the wide screen. There are good vibrations on the current movie scene. Here's hoping they continue to gather strength and influence. Long movie, long title
A long movie deserves a long title. So say hello to Chantal Akerman's most famous film, which runs almost 31/2 hours and carries the unwieldy name of Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.
Made in 1975 and celebrated ever since by numerous critics, ''Jeanne Dielman'' is only now having a theatrical premiere here, at the enterprising Film Forum. Given the sway New York has over national releasing patterns, this could be the start of a successful commercial life for Akerman's daring work. Or given the length and strangeness of the film, this could be a brief detour on the road to obscurity it has traveled so far, at least with popular audiences.
The substance of ''Jeanne Dielman'' is as precise and interminable as its moniker. Mostly, we watch the main character (played by Delphine Seyrig) go through a daily round of physically neat, but mentally empty, bourgeois living. Never in the history of cinema has the kneading of a meat loaf been recorded with such care, or with such a big star getting her fingers sticky. The film's criticism of her habits (and, by extension, her society) is implicit in its unblinking stare at the tedium and sterility of it all. The criticism becomes more explicit when we learn that Ms. Dielman is a part-time prostitute, and it explodes into outright condemnation when the ''story'' reaches its violent conclusion.
As a formal exercise in light, shape, and rhythm, ''Jeanne Dielman'' has a steady fascination. But the ending is too obvious - recalling, among other dramas, ''Request Concert'' by Franz Xaver Kroetz - and there's at least as much visual rigor to be found in a later Akerman film, ''Les Rendezvous d'Anna,'' which makes its statements in less time. Without question, the bold ''Jeanne Dielman'' deserves to be seen by those curious about new directions in cinema or about the vigorous Belgian film scene of which Akerman is an important member. But it's a long shot that so challenging and demanding a work will have much widespread appeal.