MOVIES : Bright Forecast for AFI Film Fest : ‘Beyond the Clouds’--Antonioni’s first film in a decade-- kicks off the 83-film event Thursday.

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<i> Kevin Thomas is a Times staff writer. </i>

The AFI Film Festival halved its offerings last year to some 75 films and was twice as good as a result. When the ninth annual edition opens this week under a new director, it will continue this pared-down spirit with 83 films from 32 countries.

Gary McVey took over as director last year when festival founder-director Ken Wlaschin was promoted to the American Film Institute’s director of creative affairs. McVey, who had worked as Wlaschin’s assistant since the festival’s inception, praises Wlaschin for ensuring the festival’s survival: “Ken was like F.D.R. leading us out of the Depression; he wouldn’t give up on the festival whenever everybody else wanted him to.

“But I think it’s a mistake for a festival to try to do everything, unless you have infinite resources, like Cannes,” McVey said recently at his office at the American Film Institute in Hollywood. “Now that Los Angeles has its Pan-African, Israeli and gay film festivals, we see no need to compete with or to overlap them. With the explosion in the number of local, specialized film festivals and the spread of VCRs, AFI Film Fest has to be focused on standards more than ever. People look to us to be arbiters; they have to take us on faith, and we can’t let them down very often.”


The festival opens Thursday at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with a gala premiere of “Beyond the Clouds,” a quartet of love stories that is Michelangelo Antonioni’s first film in more than a decade. (Antonioni is scheduled to attend.) Festival screenings continue through Nov. 2 at the Monica 4-Plex in Santa Monica and the Sunset 5 in West Hollywood.

A sampling of the films at press previews yielded many gems, and several outright dazzlers, most notably Mark Rappaport’s “From the Journals of Jean Seberg,” a complex and provocative contemplation of the ill-fated actress. In addition to Antonioni, other major filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Godard, Ken Loach, John Boorman, Terence Davies, John Duigan, Marcel Ophuls, Masahiro Shinoda, Aki Kaurismaki, Jiri Menzel, Theo Angelopoulos, Henry Jaglom and Les Blank will be represented in the festival.

AFI Film Fest will consist of nine divisions: an Antonioni retrospective; “ ‘45/’95: Re-Imagining Eastern Europe,” featuring films from Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland; British Film Showcase; American Independent Cinema; European Films From Cannes; Cinema Mexico; Critics’ Choices; “Left Wing vs. Right Wing,” an Oct. 28 all-night marathon of political films at the Monica, and the festival’s mainstay, International Cinema.

“We welcome showing some of Hollywood’s films, but for the most part studios are a little bit afraid of showing films in a Los Angeles festival,” McVey said. “But we’re much better off sticking to what we do best. Bringing real attention to the international cinema is our meat and potatoes. People just don’t have a chance to see directors like Pal Erdoss and Theo Angelopoulos every year. We’ve developed some muscle, too; in the past we might not have been able to land Mark Rappaport’s ‘From the Journals of Jean Seberg’ or Angelopoulos’ ‘Ulysses’ Gaze.’ ”

There will be a special presentation of Federico Fellini’s “La Strada” (Monica, Saturday at 4:40 and 9:20 p.m.) and there will be tributes to Nicolas Cage, Christopher Walken and distinguished French producer and industry leader Anatole Dauman, who will speak Friday at 9:15 p.m. at the Sunset 5 on what he calls the monopolistic impact of American films in foreign markets.

Henry Jaglom’s “Last Summer at the Hamptons,” his best film, will serve as the festival’s Mid Fest Gala, Oct. 28 at 9:10 p.m. at the Monica 4-Plex, and the festival will conclude with a celebration of Buster Keaton’s centenary, presented at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences at 8 p.m. in collaboration with the academy and LACMA. Hosted by renowned film historian Kevin Brownlow, the evening will present Keaton’s widow, Eleanor, and clips from nearly 20 of his films.


Opening weekend will bring a flock of key offerings: Jean-Luc Godard’s contemplation of himself, “J-LG by J-LG: December Self-Portrait”; “A Light-Sensitive Story,” Pal Erdoss’ take on life in a free-market economy in Hungary; Rappaport’s Seberg film; lively Les Blank shorts on legendary Afro-Cuban drummer Francesco Aguabella and Rhinestone Cowboy Gerry Gaxiola; “Sharaku,” a gorgeous, stylized period piece from the masterful Masahiro Shinoda; “Vukovar--Poste Restante,” a love story set against civil war in the former Yugoslavia; “Fresh Bait,” a powerful commentary from Bertrand Tavernier on amoral, affectless youth; “Anonymous Love Letter,” a darkly ironic tale from Mexico, and a major offering, “Orson Welles: The One Man Band,” a poignant, illuminating look at the life and work Welles, in his frustrated but active final years, made with the cooperation of his muse and collaborator Oja Kodar.

Other highly touted films this year include the opening attraction in Cinema Mexico, Jorge Fons’ “Miracle Alley,” a trio of stories set in downtown Mexico City, adapted from a book by Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz; Ken Loach’s “Land and Freedom,” winner of this year’s International Critics Prize at Cannes and a story of the impact of the Spanish Civil War upon a young Liverpudlian; Anne Fontaine’s “Augustin,” a low-key, deadpan, Keaton-esque comedy about an insurance company clerk and his unlikely attempt at movie stardom that took Cannes by surprise, and Gary Fieder’s “Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead,” a tale about a hip, retired crook (Andy Garcia) asked to do a small favor by his former boss (Christopher Walken).

Information: (213) 466-1767.

Courtesy of AFI Film Festival