There's an astonishing disparity between word and image in "Where the River Runs Black" (selected theaters). Sometimes the weak story and its lustrous visualization seem to be coming from entirely different sensibilities.

Based on David Kendall's "Lazaro," it's shot primarily in Brazil's Belem, a seaport, and the Rio Negro rain forest. It's a gorgeous-looking movie; the tropical greens and yellows, the chalks and reds of the city almost vibrate in your mind. It's another film ode to primitivism, a folkish tale of an Amazonian boy raised by river dolphins, and his vendetta against the city villains who've killed his mother.

If you saw this movie in a foreign language, with subtitles, you might think for the first hour that it was a little masterpiece. But how could the same people be responsible for such exquisite compositions and the naive, pretentious, sometimes preposterous story?

The theme here is the conflict between the jungle's innocence and the deadly encroachments of civilization. And it's almost as if, throwing themselves on the side of the wild boy from the forest, the film makers had decided to become wild boys of the forest themselves: to churn out a story as if scribbling it on tree bark and palm fronds.

Of course they can't. This is an assumed primitivism, and it always rings false. The dialogue strives for the stripped, resonant rhythms of folk poetry, but it mostly smacks of "noble-savage movie" mumbo jumbo. And it afflicts not just the natives but everyone else--the priests, nuns, explorers, even the villains. They all talk as if they've been translated from Peruvian--badly.

Even the sophisticated city villain can barely talk.

The movie is narrated by Charles Durning as the tormented Father O'Reilly, recounting his sins--and a whole decade's worth of events leading up to them--in a local confessional. You can tell something is going wrong when the usually excellent Durning can't come up with more of a character than this crustily benevolent old soul.

The plot itself is sometimes as boggling. Take the sequence where the two fine young leads--little Lazaro (Alessandro Rabelo) and his wise-cracking buddy Segundo (Ajay Naidu)--head back to the dolphin paradise, only to be nearly drowned by gubernatorial candidate Santos. Santos suddenly appears (without henchmen or campaign managers) and is immediately interrupted by the priest on a motorboat and the enraged dolphins. Could anyone make scenes like this work?

Perhaps not--though director Christopher Cain and cinematographer Juan Ruiz-Anchia (both of "The Stone Boy") actually come close. There's a humane, gentle sensibility filtering through the whole film that you have to admire (as you should also admire the courage of co-writer Neal Jimenez, who completed the script despite a crippling accident).

And Ruiz-Anchia, who also shot "At Close Range," is capable of spectacular images; he may be developing into one of the world's great cameramen. But, overall, "Where the River Runs Black" (rated PG) is a lyric without melody, a poem without words, a story without substance. Even the title sounds arch and strained.

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