She had a farm in Africa, and tales to tell

Times Staff Writer

MARCUS Mandal and Ann von Lowzow's "Karen Blixen: Out of This World" is an illuminating, poignant documentary of the acclaimed writer better known by her pen name, Isak Dinesen -- and who became even more famous when she was played by Meryl Streep in the Oscar-winning 1985 "Out of Africa." Streep is one of the key participants in the film, along with Blixen's vivacious 102-year-old sister-in-law, her nephew, her secretary-companion Clara Selborn, her outstanding biographer Judith Thurman and even her houseboy in Kenya, which she left in 1931 never to return.

The outlines of Blixen's life are well-known: Born into the landed gentry, she was drawn to her dashing Swedish cousin Hans Blixen but unable to land him, and settled for his brother Bror. He took her to a beautiful but unprofitable Kenya coffee plantation -- and infected her with syphilis, undiagnosed until 1945. She fell in love with Denys Finch Hatton, an adventurer who did not want her to give birth to their child and who died in a plane crash. And she returned to her mother's country estate for the rest of her life, turning her passions and tragedies into a series of books, beginning with "Seven Gothic Tales" and "Out of Africa."

Blixen emerges as a brave, determined aristocrat, fiercely loyal, sometimes snobbish and cruel but a woman who transformed pain and loss into enduring art. The film screens Monday as part of the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival, which runs tonight through Sept. 29 at the Fairfax Theatre.

Antonioni wraps

Among the films screening in the concluding weekend of LACMA's "Modernist Master: Michelangelo Antonioni" series are two of his later, lesser-known films: the sublime 1982 "Identification of a Woman" and the 1995 "Beyond the Clouds," a beautiful and wise reverie on love and desire.

In the first, Tomas Milian stars as Niccolo, a successful film director whose wife has left him and who seeks a relationship with a woman that will mean something to him and inspire him. (No wonder he stares at a still of Louise Brooks.) Niccolo's quest allows Antonioni to contemplate how difficult it is for people to know each other. Since it's Antonioni doing the contemplating, you can be sure there will be an awareness of the society, indeed the universe, in which we and Niccolo live. In the course of this mesmerizing film, Niccolo pursues two elusive women, both exquisite and distinctive.

No one but Antonioni could have made this film, and the way in which it has been staged is breathtaking. One of the women takes Niccolo to a party in an ancient Roman palace with rooms of incredible antique luxury filled with magnificently gowned women and formally dressed men. Antonioni lets camera movement and cropped images convey Niccolo's restlessness and disdain for aristocracy. Much later on, the camera will pan up Niccolo's body to his face and follow his gaze out a window to peer down at this woman, now on the street; moments later the camera repeats the movement to reveal that she has gone.

With the assistance of Germany's protean Wim Wenders, Antonioni made "Beyond the Clouds," a homage to passion recollected in tranquillity. Antonioni's preoccupation with alienation in modern life remains but is supplemented with an aura of warmth and gratitude for having lived and loved. The film is composed of four vignettes from a collection of short stories by Antonioni and linked by his alter ego, the Director (John Malkovich), whom we meet on a plane bound for Antonioni's hometown, Ferrara, Italy. The framing story, directed by Wenders, is rich in Antonioni's feelings about cinema. What counts here, and what gives this film its power, is the intense yet bemused compassion Antonioni is able to convey about his people and their romantic predicaments.

"Beyond the Clouds" unfolds as a series of memories rekindled and shared with the audience. There is a digression in which Wenders reunites Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau from 1961's landmark "La Notte." Mastroianni is a painter, contentedly at work on a landscape in what his friend (Moreau) recognizes as an emulation of Cezanne. She laments a society that insists on copying everything from master paintings to suitcases, while Mastroianni's artist explains that for him the thrill is in attempting to recapture the gesture of a genius. It seems a clear homage from Wenders to Antonioni, whose style he and his cameraman, Robby Muller, emulate lovingly in their linking episodes.

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Screenings

New York International Independent festival

* "Karen Blixen: Out of This World": 8 p.m. Monday

Where: Fairfax Theatre, 7907 Beverly Blvd., L.A.

Info: (323) 655-4010, www.nyfilmvideo.com

Modernist Master: Michelangelo Antonioni

* "La Signora Senza Camelie" and "Identification of a Woman": 7:30 p.m. Friday

* "The Eclipse" and "Beyond the Clouds": 7:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: LACMA, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.

Info: (323) 857-6010, www.lacma.org

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