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Mamma Roma Pier Paolo Pasolini (nc) The Square Circle Amol Palekar (15) The Associate Donald Petrie (PG) Shadow Conspiracy George Cosmatos (15) Trigger Happy Larry Bishop (15)
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The Independent Culture
The dramatic circumstances of Pier Paolo Pasolini's death have quickly come to overshadow the fierce, defiant eruption of life in his work. Late in his career, he was to conduct experiments that seemed either misjudged, like his version of The Canterbury Tales, or cold and cruel, like his repulsive final film Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom. But when you watch his magnificent second feature, Mamma Roma, made in 1962, and re-released this week in a bright new print, it feels like an antidote both to his reputation, and to most other films currently showing on neighbouring screens. Mamma Roma herself, as played by the brilliant, feral Anna Magnani, is a vibrant explosion of passion and anger, a prostitute in suburban Rome who moves to the city with her son Ettore (Ettore Gerofolo). But her attempts to begin a new, respectable life are curtailed when her ex- pimp shows up and uses emotional blackmail to force her back on the streets.

Pasolini's camera takes leisurely strolls through Rome with his characters, tracking and observing rather than probing. As with his first film, Accattone!, he chooses a cast whose faces sing with life, and then uses subtle lighting to accentuate every crease, jutting cheekbone and bullet-hole pock-mark. The style is simple poetic realism, with intermittent and strangely chilling slow-motion detours where it feels as though Pasolini is trying to rescue these people from their fate.

There is no doubt that Pasolini invested his soul in the characters; the film's images are suffused with a desperate humanity, whether locating the abrasive beauty in Ettore's scowl, or watching Mamma Roma claw at her own face when she's in pain. The film is a hymn to her, and Pasolini can't tear himself away. One of the picture's most accomplished scenes is the long tracking-shot as she wanders home, explaining her history to the various men who join her side, listen for a moment and then fall away to be replaced by others; only her resilience and the glint of street- lights reflecting on her cheap handbag are constant.

Whether you warm to The Square Circle or not, it's fair to say that you won't have seen anything quite like this giddy and endearing Indian fable. Sonali Kulkarni is the nameless village girl on the run from a trio of kidnappers when she meets a transvestite, played by Nirmal Pandey, who emerges majestically from the river like a human Excalibur. Next, she is attacked by a gang of louts, while her new chum, oblivious to her plight, sings about what happens to your eyeballs when you fall asleep. Anyway, Pandey may be in touch with his feminine side, but he talks like a High Court judge: assuring his friend that she's sure to be assaulted again if she wanders around looking so radiant, he persuades her to dress as a man. Off come the locks, on goes the moustache, and before you can say Some Like It Hot, she's being chatted up by gullible housewives.

The Square Circle is driven by an infectiously buoyant spirit, and even the incongruous Indian pop songs have a pleasingly spicy aftertaste; a brief blast of Madonna coming from a car radio sounds positively humdrum compared to one musical number that manages to accommodate the lyric "How can I denounce this transient body?" and still feel jubilant. This energy can persuade you to forgive some passages that haven't travelled too well - such as the rape scene edited to the beat of the soundtrack, where what we're hearing cannot help but trivialise what we're seeing. But this is mostly a sensitive exploration of sexual identity in a country where such issues aren't open for negotiation. Special mention goes to the delightful Nirmal Pandey; it takes an actor of considerable talent to elicit sympathy for a character whose idea of rape counselling is to tell the victim to stop whingeing.

More gender games in The Associate, though this time the setting is Wall Street, where the financial analyst Laurel Ayres (Whoopi Goldberg) finds that her business savvy won't even be acknowledged unless she's got a man on her side. So she invents one - a business partner whom she can use to reassure clients unwilling to trust a woman. This is a light, airy comedy, but any success it achieves is down to the unexpected fire of Goldberg's performance, rather than the contrived plot, which isn't half as biting as it thinks it is. All the financial shenanigans threaten to destroy the sense of intimacy worked up by Goldberg and her co-star, the perpetually smiling Dianne Wiest. And it's a disappointment that the script didn't make more of the fact that Laurel's fictitious partner is not only male but Caucasian. This significant detail is established simply so we can gasp when Whoopi goes white, but greater emphasis on it might have provided a welcome dash of acid in this sugar-sweet affair.

Casting Charlie Sheen in anything is inexcusable. But getting him to portray a man of profound cunning and intelligence is like hiring Macaulay Culkin to play Malcolm X. And yet here Sheen is in Shadow Conspiracy, as a trusted Presidential advisor, having such distinguished actors as Donald Sutherland and Ben Gazzararemarking on his brilliance even as he sucks the very life out of each frame in which he appears. The film itself is a sluggish conspiracy thriller which has nothing to recommend it, aside from a batty climax in which the President is almost assassinated by a tiny remote-control helicopter.

Certain sections of the audience at the screening of the crime comedy Trigger Happy laughed themselves to the brink of a hernia. But I was unmoved for the duration of this dim-witted spoof. If a running gag about three hoods with rhyming names tickles your fancy, this is the film for you. If not, you may boggle at the parade of fine actors risking their reputations on such tomfoolery. Gabriel Byrne's lollopping performance has all the subtlety of Zero Mostel. Perhaps it was a dare. Meanwhile, the writer- director Larry Bishop casts himself as a hitman, and gets to kill off some big names. Sadly, he runs out of bullets before he gets to Jeff Goldblum, who is so languorous you long for someone to dash on with a set of jump-leads and start him up

All films are on general release tomorrow, except 'Mamma Roma', which is at the ICA to the end of the month then at selected cinemas