At least Rita Gam, the host and mind behind the sporadic series "World of Film" (now back for three weeks after a long absence), has a genuine fascination for foreign films. That is more than can be said for most U.S. film distributors, which typically treat subtitled movies like leprosy victims.
Gams' heart is clearly in this project, which means to survey international cinema country by country. You only wish she did all of her homework before she winged off to her destinations.
Tonight, Gam lands in the Czech and Slovak republics, which, as the former Czechoslovakia, produced some of Eastern Europe's great post-war works. We see clips of some of them--Milos Forman's "The Firemen's Ball," Jiri Menzel's "Closely Watched Trains," Vera Chytilova's "Fruit of Paradise"--but no real analysis of how daring these and other films were behind the Iron Curtain.
Gam also doesn't inquire into one of world cinema's mysteries: why first-rate artists like Menzel and Chytilova didn't follow Forman and cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek west after the 1968 Soviet invasion. Instead, they stayed behind, creatively shackled and servile to the state.
Also missing is any mention of the extraordinary animator Jan Svankmajer, the only Czech filmmaker to make a major impact abroad in the '90s.
Gam's homework improves greatly in her survey of the sprawling, complex Indian film industry (next Friday), which churns out more than 1,000 features a year--by far the world's most prolific. She also talks to and mentions nearly all of the key people in both the commercial Hindi movie world and the regional, independent cinema.
The contrast is striking, especially between superstar Amitabh Bachchan, who insists that movies should be escapist fare for the mass public, and filmmaker Mira Nair, who wants them to be about something. Gam, though, sounds puzzled by the typical three-hour Indian movie, which can be a giddy, fantastic whirl stuffed with music, thrills and melodrama.
Gam's visit to Mexico (airing Aug. 25) begins with trite tourist images, but ends with observations on how the Mexican film industry is changing. Again, we're struck by the missing names (her historical overview never mentions the eccentric epic director Alexandro Jodorowsky), but we do hear from the women who are gradually dominating film production, such as Ofelia Medina, who argues that the only real reason to make a movie anywhere is "passion."
* "World of Film" airs at 11:30 tonight and the following two Fridays on KCET-TV Channel 28.