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Better late than never 

Some of my friends revel in pointing out what they consider to be my horrifying lack of qualifications for this job (apparently never having seen The Goonies is a transgression on par with puppy kicking and grandmacide). Admittedly, there are a couple of gaps in my cinematic education, and the more I write about film, I realize the less I know about it.

Take, for instance, the late French filmmaker Maurice Pialat. He made 10 acclaimed feature films over the last four decades of the 20th century and was thought to be the best post-nouvelle vague French director by icons like Godard and Truffaut (aka guys who should know). But I'd never heard of him until a month ago when I perused the latest Dryden Theatre schedule, though I'm betting he's flown under the radar of most Americans. A Pialat retrospective has been winding its way around the United States, and its stint in Rochester ends this week with 1987's Under Satan's Sun and Pialat's swan song, 1995's Le Garçu.

Pialat won the Palme d'Or (and received a healthy round of boos) at the Cannes Film Festival for the challenging Sun, which stars granite-faced Gérard Depardieu as young Father Donissan, a priest in the throes of a crisis of faith. His wish is to hightail it back to the monastery, but his mentor (played by Pialat, displaying some impressive acting chops himself) won't let him. Their deep discussions about spirituality help to set Sun's rather slight plot into motion.

One morning, after an encounter with a seemingly satanic stranger, Donissan meets Mouchette (Sandrine Bonnaire), a petulant 16-year-old who is contending with an internal battle of her own. The events of the previous evening enable Donissan to see into the soul of the troubled girl, an act that gets the priest banished to a rural parish. It is at his new assignment that Donissan decides to call God onto the carpet.

Depardieu tones down his looming physicality to channel a timid, introspective priest, while Bonnaire is appropriately melodramatic as a teenager both aware and afraid of her burgeoning power. Sun is heavy on the dialogue, with some conversations seeming more like an exchange of soliloquies rather than an interaction between two people (as a matter of fact, Sun might work well as a play). But the struggle between good and evil always makes for an engrossing study, and Pialat handles the age-old conflict in a deft and unusually subtle way.

For what would be his final film, Le Garçu, Pialat once again taps Depardieu, now featuring Jackson Browne hair and a Michelin Man physique, to portray Gérard, a successful middle-aged Parisian whose unchecked self-absorption wears away at his family's happiness. The camera watches unflinchingly as Gérard plays passive-aggressive mind games with Sophie (Juliette Binoche look-alike Geraldine Pailhas), his much-younger wife, and alternately neglects and spoils his young son (Pialat's 4-year-old boy, Antoine).

Pialat doesn't lay the story out in a simple way. Instead he allows us to process the facts as various episodes in the life of Gérard's family unfold. We're dropped in on a marriage in obvious shambles, a condition we understand once we see Gérard in action. He bullies Sophie and then ignores her to the point where she takes up with his friend, so when Sophie asks her selfish husband, "Do you ever wonder if you're making me happy?" we're pretty sure the answer is no.

After Gérard leaves he visits Antoine at times that are convenient only to him and tries to buy his son's love with expensive gifts. He doesn't seem to understand the damage he has wrought until he is forced to deal with the death of his own father, an interlude that offers some insight into Gérard's behavior. Depardieu's performance leaves no doubt that Gérard loves his family as best he can, and Pailhas's performance as the aching Sophie makes you wish Gérard had just a little bit more to give.

As for Antoine... well, I'm certainly not going to trash the work of a 4-year-old. The younger Pialat basically ran around doing what kids do and the elder Pialat filmed it, possibly to exorcise any demons he might have about his own inattentiveness towards his son. (Incidentally, though, if you would like to see a 4-year-old really act, go rent the French import Ponette, and make sure you have a wheelbarrow full of Kleenex at the ready.)

The final shot of Le Garçu --- and of Pialat's accomplished career --- is lovely, heartbreaking, and true, and it should be mandatory viewing for Hollywood writers who feel compelled to wrap thorny real-life situations into neat packages.

Under Satan's Sun (NR) screens Wednesday, July 27, and Le Garçu (NR) screens Friday, July 29, both at the Dryden Theatre, George Eastman House, 900 East Avenue, at 8 p.m. 271-4090

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