THE DREAMLIFE OF ANGELS Co-written and directed by Erick Zonca

When we first see Isa, the 21-year-old heroine of Erick Zonca's The Dreamlife of Angels, she's trudging under the weight of a huge backpack through the chill dawn of an almost featureless European city. With her close-cropped dark hair and street urchin's sniffle, she seems to be carrying the burden of the world on her shoulders.

Just moments after Zonca's arresting first scene, we start to see how stoic, and resourceful, this lost child has come to be. To raise spare change, Isa cuts photos from dog-eared magazines and hawks them as greeting cards. She sweet-talks strangers, takes warmth where she can find it, and keeps her eyes open. She's got the survival instincts of a stray cat and, even dwarfed by her backpack, the same feline grace.

This time she has landed, it turns out, in Lille, an industrial city in the north of France. You won't find it on the tourist maps, but it is exactly the right locale for Zonca's bleak meditations on loneliness, friendship and powerlessness. Lille sustained grave damage in both world wars, and the city the filmmaker and cinematographer Agnes Godard show us is gray and glum, a pile of anonymous postwar concrete that seems to have lost its soul. Isa, portrayed by a saucer-eyed wonder named Elodie Bouchez, is, despite her street smarts, in danger of suffering the same fate. Rootless and unfocused, she looks to be one lost job short of oblivion.

In Lille, Isa winds up in a mind-numbing dress factory, faced with a sewing machine she doesn't understand and an irritable supervisor. But there she makes a friend. Marie (Natacha Regnier) is as anxiety-ridden as Isa is tranquil, as hostile as Isa is practical. Marie, too, has lost her family and her way and finds herself on the ragged edge. But her brittleness contrasts sharply with Isa's almost fatalistic optimism. Marie has lucked into a bargain, though: She's house-sitting an apartment whose owners, a mother and daughter, have both been badly injured in an auto accident and are lying unconscious in a hospital. Ever the opportunist, Isa quickly becomes Marie's roommate.

Thus does Zonca, who at age 41 makes his feature-film debut with Angels, set the stage for a resolutely unsentimental study of two young women trying to deal with poverty and anomie. In the cold streets of Lille, Isa and Marie playfully accost businessmen; Isa tries to talk their way into a rock concert; eventually, they take up with a pair of nightclub bouncers (Jo Prestia and Patrick Mercado) who turn out to be pretty decent guys underneath their gruff exteriors. Isa and Marie audition, none too enthusiastically, for jobs as waitresses gotten up as celebrities. The irony is stinging: In real life, they are invisible, anonymous figures in a cold landscape.

Eventually, the paths of these two distressed souls must diverge. While embittered Marie grasps at the illusion that she will find happiness with a feckless rich boy (Gregoire Colin) who owns a local nightclub and has taken sexual advantage of her, Isa becomes ever more concerned with the girl whose place she took at the apartment -- the girl in the coma. First she finds the stricken Sandrine's diary, full of adolescent yearning and uncertainty, and is moved by its tender secrets. Isa even composes new entries of her own, as if to keep Sandrine's spirit alive. "You've been in the hospital one month," she writes in a looping schoolgirl's hand. "My name is Isabelle. I live in your flat."

That's not enough, of course. Isa begins visiting the unconscious Sandrine, and her sympathy for the bandaged stranger curled into a ball evolves into uneasy recognition.

"She could stay like that and grow old on her bed," Isa tells the oblivious Marie, her voice edged with wonder and terror. Zonca never puts too fine a point on it, but Isa's life (and Marie's) is also in danger of slipping into the long night.

Compared to most American movies about teen angst or postadolescent confusion -- Larry Clark's Kids, say, or that spate of isn't-young-love-difficult pictures -- The Dreamlife of Angels is curiously quiet and relentlessly contemplative. There are raucous party scenes but not a lot of empty chatter. Heart-wrenching emotion abounds. The two young actresses are so natural that you sometimes feel as though a TV camera has suddenly invaded real life, and Angels' third major character -- the city of Lille itself -- plays its role perfectly: It's a graveyard for dreams.

In French with English subtitles.
Opens May 14 at the Tivoli.
-- Bill Gallo

THE MIRROR
Written and directed by Jafar Panahi
The Mirror is the third top-drawer Iranian film to open in the States this year, following The Children of Heaven and The Apple (the latter, regrettably, has yet to open in St. Louis). All three serve to confirm the vitality of Iranian cinema, despite the restrictions of censorship and tight budgets.

Like its predecessors, The Mirror centers around the world of children -- a theme whose popularity in Iranian films is in some ways a response to the censors and to the dress codes that hamper the filming of adult actresses. Director Jafar Panahi made a splash with his first film, The White Balloon (1995), which was the highest-grossing Iranian film ever in the international arena. It was a simple story, told in real time, of a little girl's desperate efforts to retrieve the money she has dropped through a grate in the sidewalk.

At first, The Mirror seems like a near-remake of The White Balloon. It focuses on Mina (Mina Mohammad-Khani, who also starred in the earlier film), a first-grader who is trying to find her way home after her mother fails to pick her up at school. As in The White Balloon, Mina's character is plucky and self-possessed in the face of a world of relative giants. She unself-consciously braces every adult that crosses her path, insisting that they help her find her way, even as she defiantly refuses to admit that she's lost.

Then, a little more than a third of the way through the movie, Panahi throws us for a loop. After Mina is abandoned on a bus, just when we expect her to start crying, she suddenly looks straight into the camera. From the other side of the invisible line between film and reality, we hear a voice say, "Don't look at the camera, Mina." The little girl doesn't listen. "I'm not acting anymore," she replies, and stomps off the bus, discarding parts of her costume. The camera swings around and shows us the flustered crew, as well as the "camera" -- an early signal that the disruption is not spontaneous but is, in fact, part of the script.

Various crew members try to get the kid to explain what's wrong, but she refuses. When she forgets to take off her radio microphone, they decide to surreptitiously follow her and continue filming. Of course, the "real" Mina is in precisely the same situation as the character Mina: She has to find her way home in a city full of busy, impatient adults. The camera tracks her through the streets, occasionally losing her in traffic before backtracking and locating her through the sounds that the microphone picks up.

As the real Mina continues the odyssey begun by her character, the confusion between reality and story grows: Commuters try to board the bus from which the film crew is shooting; Mina runs into one of the film's bit players, who confides that her earlier dialogue wasn't written by the filmmaker but was simply a genuine description of her life.

In interviews, Panahi is a little cagy about the genesis of the project. Without claiming that the idea grew out of the filming, he tells us that, after interviewing 7,000 children in two months, he had at first cast a different little girl, who refused to continue acting after the first shot. He instructed her to act upset for the second shot. She asked why.

"Because your mother isn't here," he told her.
"But, if my mother doesn't show up, I don't get upset."
"Well, you're playing the role of someone who does get upset when her mother doesn't come for her."

"Then go and find someone else who does get upset when her mother doesn't show up," she announced.

Throughout the last two-thirds of the film, it is possible to entertain the illusion that the crew is simply improvising: The microphone fritzes out a few times. And maybe they're shooting with two cameras, and the camera we see on the bus was legit.

In addition to its self-reflexive theme and its view of children in an adult's world, it's quite possible to read The Mirror as an allegory about Iranian society. The conversations we overhear on the street center around two subjects: All that the men (including the members of the film crew) seem to care about is a big soccer game, which we catch snatches of on the radio; the only times they digress are when they're discussing marriage and the role of women -- sometimes in response to female challenges.

Mina, the woman-in-progress, is already showing that she's fed up with playing a role determined by others. (And, when we do learn a little of why she quit, it has to do with what she sees as the character's demeaning aspects.) But we see that, even after quitting and returning to being herself, she still doesn't have full control over who she is. Being a child, she is essentially invisible; as a woman, she may be equally invisible.

Her only tool for escaping this fate is to make herself continually audible ... to keep yelling for attention and being incredibly forward, no matter how steadfastly those around her ignore her. Only near the very end, when she stops playing the game altogether, refusing even to wear the microphone, does she achieve something like independence from those who would control her existence.

In Farsi with English subtitles.
Plays at 8 p.m. May 14-16 at Webster University.
-- Andy Klein

TEA WITH MUSSOLINI
Co-written and directed by Franco Zeffirelli
Even English actresses of a certain age have a difficult time finding good roles, so it's understandable that Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Joan Plowright might jump at the chance to star in Tea with Mussolini, Franco Zeffirelli's new film about a group of English expatriates living in Florence during the 1930s who willfully ignore the ominous war clouds gathering over Europe. Based on the Italian director's own childhood, the picture is a bit precious, even frivolous -- especially after such visceral experiences as Saving Private Ryan -- but it is clearly intended as a sweetly nostalgic memory piece in which the true horrors of the period are assiduously avoided.

Written by Zeffirelli and British playwright/novelist John Mortimer (TV's Rumpole of the Bailey), Tea with Mussolini is actually a coming-of-age story about a young, illegitimate Italian boy named Luca Innocenti whose mother has died and who is not officially acknowledged by his father. The boy (played as a 7-year-old by newcomer Charlie Lucas and at 17 by Baird Wallace, also making his feature debut) is adopted by a clan of strong-willed, eccentric English women known around Florence as the "Scorpioni" for their sharp tongues and abrasive manner.

The group includes the sensible and determined Mary Wallace (Plowright), who works part-time as a secretary to Luca's father and who enlists the other women in her scheme to save the boy from an orphanage; the imperious Lady Hester Random (Smith); and Arabella Delancey (Dench), a passionate advocate of all things artistic. Although they have chosen to leave England and live in Florence, the women remain obstinately British, refusing to learn Italian, insisting upon tea every afternoon and demanding a certain formal civility from everyone they encounter. Apolitical in the extreme, they also ignore the tensions rising in Europe.

The group also includes two Americans, Elsa Morganthal (Cher), a wealthy adventuress who was a friend of Luca's mother, and Georgie Rockwell (Lily Tomlin), an openly lesbian archaeologist. An inveterate snob, Lady Hester looks down on Americans, sniffing disdainfully, "It's amazing. They can even vulgarize ice cream."

The widow of a British envoy, Lady Hester has deluded herself into thinking that she has a special relationship with Mussolini. (The pivotal scene involving Hester's taking tea with the dictator was inspired by a true incident in which Violet Trefusis, the colorful English intellectual who lived for many years in a villa outside Florence, actually did meet the dictator.) The episode serves as a metaphor for the rampant illusion among the expatriates that the war would not touch them.

But the narcissism behind their refusal to see what clearly was going on in the world makes the film irritating in a way that Zeffirelli clearly did not intend. The war presented here is a sanitized version; nothing truly terrible happens to anyone. Even Elsa, who is Jewish, is blithely unaware of what is going on in Germany and the danger she faces. This lack of attentiveness makes the women look silly and petty, and the few war-related sequences, such as scenes of Luca and Lady Hester's nephew in the Italian Underground, don't seem the least bit authentic.

The film might have worked better if it had unfolded more through Luca's eyes. Zeffirelli apparently intended this to be the case -- he is the Luca character and actually lived much of the story -- but he hasn't pulled it off. Tea with Mussolini doesn't come close to John Boorman's captivating Hope and Glory, which managed to address the terrible destructiveness and misery of the war as well as the magical adventure it offered its young protagonist.

Opens May 14.
-- Jean Oppenheimer

WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE'S A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM
Adapted and directed by Michael Hoffman
A Midsummer Night's Dream came early in Shakespeare's career. He had written it by at least 1598, in roughly the same period as another lyric-romantic masterpiece, Romeo and Juliet. Despite Samuel Pepys' famous dismissal of Dream as "the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life," it has always been among the most popular of English comedies -- with the exception of R&J, it may be the most frequently produced of Shakespeare's works. It's also all too frequently wrecked in production, either crushed under some labored directorial concept or choked into ridiculous insipidity by ersatz fairy dust.

The latter is probably the more ignominious fate that can befall it. Dream is, in part, a fantasy about fairies, which Disney has taught us to think of as cute, anthropomorphic fireflies. But many Elizabethans genuinely believed in these woodland sprites, and to them they were more complicated figures -- comical, sexual, potentially malevolent, certainly frightening. Shakespeare intends his Puck to be attractive, no doubt, but Tinkerbell he isn't -- his lines have a mysterious, manic edge.

One of the best of the many delights of Michael Hoffman's new film, William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, is that he manages to have it both ways -- the gauzy fantasy and the bacchanal. Though the film is traditional enough in approach to employ Mendelssohn's incidental music -- as did Max Reinhardt's 1935 Hollywood version -- it is still an original. Like Kenneth Branagh's screen Shakespeares, this Dream could easily be underrated by highbrow critics as conventional, but it is so only on its vigorous, accessible surface. Hoffman, like Branagh, comes up with some truly inventive and startlingly valid interpretations on the level of characterization and mood.

Your heart may sink, for instance, when you see fireflies buzzing around under the opening titles, but that's not the whole story. When we finally get a look at the fairyland behind the glowworm disguise, the winged cuties drink and party (and orgy) in the company of more pungent mythological bogies like satyrs and even, in a cameo, the gorgon Medusa.

At the center of this world is a shifty, nervy, not-quite-knowable Puck. Stanley Tucci plays him with a perpetual "Who, me?" expression, a voluptuary bad boy caught with his hand either in the cookie jar or down someone's blouse.

Director Hoffman, who wrote the adaptation himself, opens this Dream with a title that jumps through some hoops explaining that the setting is 19th-century Italy, at a place called "Monte Athena." This allows him to shoot the film on the same sort of exquisite Tuscan locations that gave such a paradisiacal atmosphere to Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing, without it seeming odd when the characters keep referring to their home as "Athens."

Some of the earlier works of Hoffman, an Idaho native often active in Britain (he was an Oxford Rhodes scholar in drama), suggest his aptness for a film of Dream. His 1995 comedy-drama Restoration, set in the court of Charles II, showed his gift for fanciful opulence and sensuality, useful in presenting both the fairy world and the court of Duke Theseus (David Strathairn). His 1996 romantic comedy One Fine Day gave him a solid grounding in the art of complicating the romance of couples plainly meant by fate to be lovers, like Theseus' squabbling, misaligned courtiers. And 1991's Soapdish -- a very good farce (set behind the scenes of a soap opera) that regrettably fell into the shadow of a great farce, Tootsie -- demonstrates Hoffman's fitness to lampoon the vanities and foibles of actors. This is essential to Dream because, along with the courtly romance and the magical folklore, the play offers the best parody of amateur theater ever written.

A group of tradesmen, or "rude mechanicals," plan to perform an "interlude" at the wedding celebration of Theseus and his bride, Hippolyta (Sophie Marceau), a dramatization of the tragic myth of Pyramus and Thisbe. The leading man of this well-intentioned but inept little troupe is Nick Bottom the weaver (Kevin Kline), and he's also the closest that Dream, a true ensemble piece, has to a lead role.

Like the characters in the romantic-rivalry strand, Bottom falls victim to Puck's erotic magic -- the fairy king Oberon (Rupert Everett) has commanded Puck to play a joke on his wife, the fairy queen Titania (Michelle Pfeiffer), by enchanting her to fall in love with the first creature she spies upon awakening. This turns out to be Bottom, and Puck compounds her indignity by transforming Bottom's head into that of an ass.

Hoffman has concocted a subplot of his own, played out almost without words, involving Bottom's stern, disapproving wife (Heather Elizabeth Parisi). These scenes seem totally dispensable and are the only times when the energy level droops. Yet even this misfired idea is nonetheless part of the director's finest achievement in this Dream: a reimagining of Bottom and his fellow mechanicals as real comic characters rather than as broadly played clown roles.

The actors all seem happy in that way that only Shakespeare can make English-speaking actors. Pfeiffer is both absurdly beautiful and beautifully absurd in her playing of Titania's wholehearted infatuation with Bottom. Everett brings a subtle, indolent sense of luxury to Oberon, and though the mortal lovers are as colorless as ever, Christian Bale, Calista Flockhart, Anna Friel and Dominic West at least keep them attractive and energetic. Flockhart was given the best of these fairly thankless roles -- the jilted-but-determined Helena -- and she plays it with uninhibited force; TV's Ally McBeal has given her such pop prominence at the moment that some may forget that she's a highly regarded classical actress. (In a brief seminude scene, however, she really does look shockingly undernourished.)

It's with the mechanicals that Hoffman shows the common touch. Kline makes Bottom lovable, complex and humanly convincing. Handsome with an edge of shabbiness, he's a fatuous ass even before he's transformed, and he's authentically romantic even with donkey's ears growing from his head. And his speech after he awakes is a spine-tingler.

Is there something Kline can't do? He probably can't suffer like Keitel or DeNiro, and, though his classic turn in A Fish Called Wanda showed he's one of the great comic villains, his boyishness probably won't allow him to pull off serious villainy until he's older. Other than that, there can be few actors alive without grounds for envying him.

The other mechanicals get less to do but take advantage of what they get. Roger Rees is a diplomatic Quince; wonderful Max Wright, attended by a sweet little terrier, is a put-upon Starveling; and Bill Irwin's Snout and Gregory Jbara's Snug provide what is needed from them. Hoffman's most inspired piece of invention, though, is allowing Flute (Sam Rockwell) to become a good actor in his final speech as Thisbe. It cuts the froth with a whisper of romantic poignancy, and it chases away four centuries of aristocratic patronization.

Opens May 14.
-- M.V. Moorhead

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