Times Staff Writer

More than a decade after the death of Franco and the return of democracy to Spain, the Spanish cinema is still reacting to the long years of repression in the wake of the the Civil War.

With a dark humor that would have amused Bunuel, a whole group of younger film makers are making the most outrageous connections between sex, politics, religion and death--and none more effectively than Pedro Almodovar, whose newest film, "Matador," has been chosen to launch "The New Spanish Cinema and the Films of Carlos Saura" at 8 p.m. Friday at UCLA's Melnitz Theater. The series continues through Sept. 12. (The retrospective for Saura, who will be feted tonight at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, begins next Monday).

Definitely not for impressionable youngsters or for prudes, "Matador" is an ultra-stylish, kinky, inky comedy that, among other things, parodies the finish of "Duel in the Sun"--which is shown to have a fascination for the heroine--as it sends up all the extremes of the Spanish sexual psyche ( machismo, puritanism, guilt).

It centers on a luckless youth (Nacho Martinez), a failed rapist beset by a fervently religious mother (Juliete Serrano) as crazed as Piper Laurie in "Carrie"; a stunningly beautiful attorney (Assumpta Serna) who's more consumed with lust than a passion for justice, and a retired matador (Antonio Banderas) who remarks, "Chicks are just like bulls. You gotta hem then in; then it's easy." (Almodovar and Serna will be on hand for the screening.)

Of the two Manuel Gutierrez Aragon films screening Saturday at 8 p.m., the first, "Demons in the Garden" (1982), which had a local run in 1984, is by far the best. It tells of a wise, large-eyed and totally indulged little boy (Alvaro Sanchez Prieto) growing up in the '40s and is a compassionate portrait of the three tempestuous, deeply maternal women in the boy's life, exquisitely played by Angela Molina, Ana Belen and Encarna Paso.

The demons in the garden of the boy's grandmother are the familiar ones to which human nature is vulnerable, but they also refer to the evils of life under Franco, the rigid, hypocritical social structure in particular. (Imanol Arias, who plays the boy's wastrel father, will be on hand for the screening).

"The Most Beautiful Night" (1985) suffers in comparison to the other films. It's a tedious business, a failed variation on "A Midsummer Night's Dream," about a harassed TV executive (Jose Sacristan) who becomes convinced that his actress wife (Victoria Abril) is having an affair--never mind that he's having an affair with an actress who stars in one of his shows. The only slightly risque item here is that the executive's mistress is played by the towering transsexual who calls herself Bibi Andersen--not to be confused with Swedish actress Bibi Andersson, who's appeared in many Ingmar Bergman films.

Thursday's program in UCLA Film Archive's "MGM: The Silent Twenties" is composed of a King Vidor triple feature that begins at 6 p.m. with "Wine of Youth" (1924), a film so obscure that the director himself never mentioned it in his autobiography. At 8 p.m. "The Crowd" (1928), one of the greatest and most famous of all silents will screen, followed by "The Patsy" (1928), one of two sparkling comedies Vidor made with Marion Davies (The other is "Show People," and they're about the only films to do her justice).

Adapted from a Rachel Crothers play, "Wine of Youth" is as much of its period as "The Crowd" is timeless. It may be minor, stage-bound Vidor, but it is an amusing and revealing social document, reflective of the Jazz Age generation's challenge of lingering Victorian values and mores.

Its heroine (Eleanor Boardman, later Mrs. Vidor and "The Crowd's" leading lady), unable to choose between her two suitors (William Haines, Ben Lyon) hits upon the heretical and highly advanced notion that people really ought to get to know each other before they get married.

Her family's scandalized reaction to her determination to go on an overnight outing with her beaux and another couple, however, only calls attention to the hypocrisy of her parents' loveless, empty marriage. "Wine of Youth" is actually prophetic in its view of what a modern marriage should be. Information: (213) 825-2345, 825-2581.

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