Family on the Rocks

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Stephen Erickson's wrenching family drama "The Stonecutter" screens tonight at 6 as the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival gets underway at the Vogue Theater, 6675 Hollywood Blvd.

Michael Cavalieri, who has terrific presence and focus, plays a 29-year-old Italian American who abruptly left his Chicago family at age 17 and has had no contact with it until Estelle (Trisha Melynkov), the young stepmother he never knew he had, tracks him down in Los Angeles. She persuades him to come home because his immigrant stonecutter father Tony (Harold Cannon) has terminal cancer.

What this ambitious first film reveals is how two secrets--one kept by the son from his sister, the other kept by the father from his entire family out of a fierce macho pride and protectiveness--have done far more harm than good. These people are so volatile and stubborn, so incapable of hearing each other out, that their explosive wrangling borders on wearisome. But gradually Erickson and his cast lure us into this increasingly complex and provocative drama. Visually, the film is striking and graceful, with cinematographer David M. Russell employing a rich play of light and shadow.

Also noteworthy, among others screening at the festival through Dec. 9, are the dark Australian comedy "He Died With a Felafel in His Hand" (today at 2 p.m.) and "Jacob Two Two Meets the Hooded Fang" (Wednesday at 4 p.m. at the Fairfax, 7907 Beverly Blvd.).

Skippable: "A Month of Sundays," a family drama similar to "The Stonecutter"--too treacly despite a strong central performance by Rod Steiger. (868) 468-7619.

Among the rich offerings in the American Cinematheque's weekend "Treasure Cave of Silent Films: A Tribute to Italy's Cineteca del Friuli and the Pordenone Silent Film Festival" at the Egyptian are "The Tiger's Coat" (Friday at 9:30 p.m.) and two films directed and starring Febo Mari, "Cenere" (Ashes) and "The Faun" (Sunday at 5 p.m.).

The first is the only film in which the beautiful Tina Modotti, the Italian-born San Francisco actress, starred in her brief Hollywood career before becoming a celebrated photographer--Edward Weston was her mentor-lover--and dedicated communist operative. Based on a book by Elizabeth De Jeans and directed by Roy Clements, "The Tiger's Coat" (1920) is an entertaining, conventional silent melodrama in which racism--Modotti's desperate Mexican servant passes herself off as her late employer--is trumped by love, as her wealthy benefactor (W. Lawson Butt) tries but is unable to reject her when he learns she is but a peon. The radiant and poised Modotti might well have gone on to become an important star had she persisted; as it turned out, her life was far more dramatic than most movies.

During the silent era, numerous internationally renowned grandes dames of the theater appeared in what were little more than static filmings of their biggest hits. Only Eleanora Duse understood that for film "something quite different is needed," and she is haunting in her understated eloquence as a beautiful but frail Sardinian woman who has been abandoned by her lover yet is driven to turn their infant son over to his father, who can provide him with a better life. In "Cenere" (Ashes), this 38-minute 1916 chronicle of a mother-and-son reunion that comes too late, Febo Mari, who plays the son as an adult, is revealing as a boldly innovative and enduring film poet.

"Cenere" is but a curtain-raiser to Mari's triumphantly audacious 1917 feature "The Faun," a romantic fantasy that imaginatively expresses a seven-deadly-sins-style moral fable. This exquisite film begins with a hugely successful sculptor (Vasco Creti) two-timing his distraught lover (Antonietta Mordeglia). Eventually falling into a troubled sleep, she dreams that her lover's statue of a half-man, half-beast faun comes alive (in the form of Mari himself) with a series of inspired and poignant adventures to follow. Mari's wit and sophistication are matched by his mastery of his medium, marked by an easy flow between reality and fantasy and an inherent grasp of the camera's unique potential, qualities already in full flower in "Cenere."

Robert Israel will provide live musical accompaniment for these films and other offerings, which include the Friday 7 p.m. opening attraction "Silent Clowns," "Rare Fleischer Bros. Shorts" (Saturday at 5 p.m., hosted by director Richard Fleischer) and a pair of early William Wyler westerns, "Straight Shooter" and "Thunder Riders" (Saturday at 7:30 p.m.). (323) 466-FILM.

Mark Steven Shepherd's revealing "Nothing but the Truth," a 75-minute documentary on the three-ring circus that unfolded outside the Santa Monica courthouse during the O.J. Simpson civil trial, screens Saturday in Documental's 9 p.m. show at the Midnight Special Bookstore, 1318 Third Street Promenade. According to Shepherd, his award-winning work was picked up by PBS and has aired in all major cities except Los Angeles, where KCET-TV refused to show it because of its tone and content.

Shepherd, an independent filmmaker and sometime CNN cameraman, makes a concerted effort to capture the carnival atmosphere outside the courtroom in which O.J. supporters and detractors clashed constantly. There are serious individuals in both groups, but the trial, not surprisingly, attracted many who simply come across as bizarre or eccentric regardless of their opinions about whether Simpson killed his ex-wife and her acquaintance Ron Goldman.

Not much that's sensible or rational comes out of this crowd, yet we're left with a feeling of how healthy it is that all these people get to express themselves freely, and there's a running debate over whether Simpson is a victim of racism. One incisive comment comes from an elderly man who expresses concern that coverage of the trial is inevitably filtered by the time it airs on TV. As the trial ends, Shepherd includes glimpses of Simpson displaying remarkable grace under pressure and gratitude to his supporters. Among those in the crowds is a towheaded 5-year-old boy who opines that "If O.J. did it, he didn't mean it," and a man who has built a case that O.J. was inspired to murder from having seen "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" and who holds up a photo of Simpson made up to look like Tim Curry in his Frank 'n' Furter guise.

Shepherd has captured the atmosphere surrounding the trial with a sense of humor and fair play. (310) 3933-2923.

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