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festen thomas vinterberg (15) n Kini and adams Idrissa ouedraogo n Schpaaa eric poppe (18) n The 39 Steps alfred hitchcock (PG)

WE'VE ALREADY had one great traumatic father-and-son movie this year in Paul Schrader's Affliction; now there is a second in Festen. The young Danish director Thomas Vinterberg spends the first half-hour slyly confusing us as to what sort of film we're meant to be watching. Ostensibly it's about an affluent, bourgeois family gathering to celebrate the 60th birthday of their formidable patriarch (Henning Moritzen). Here come dutiful son Christian (Ulrich Thomsen), now a successful chef in Paris; younger brother Michael (Thomas Bo Larsen), cheating husband and ne'er-do well; their free-spirit sister Helene (Paprika Steen), plus sundry other relatives and friends.

The one notable absentee is Christian's twin sister, Linda, whose recent suicide reverberates through the family house and unexpectedly becomes the focal point of the birthday celebrations. Picture the scene: the guests are done up to the nines and making merry over the dinner table when Christian rises to toast his father, as agreed. Only it's not a fond filial tribute - it's a calm denunciation of the old man for sexually abusing him and his dead sister when they were kids. The silence that falls over the assembled, followed by a stifled clap, is ghastly perfection. It's impossible to imagine a more horrible accusation. What we urgently need to discover is whether it's true.

Vinterberg's distinctive visual style - a shaky verite look - is governed by the Dogme code of film-making, whose rules he formulated with fellow Dane Lars von Trier. In effect it means using only hand-held camera, natural light and untreated sound. More importantly, it's the boldly naturalistic performances he draws from his cast that make the film soar, from bit parts all the way up to Moritzen's paternal monster. (It's testament to the film's extraordinary subtlety that, by the end, you may feel a terrible shiver of sympathy for him.)

At times, this terrific party-on-the-verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown recalls Robert Altman's A Wedding, and there are shades of Bunuel in the way the veneer of respectability is peeled away to reveal viciousness and hypocrisy. Yet Vinterberg has no reason to stand in anybody's shadow: his film has a confidence all its own, and its seamless melding of tragedy and farce will be hard to forget.

Kini and Adams is a tale of two friends who long to escape their tumbledown existence in the remote Zimb- abwean countryside. Kini (Vusi Kuneni) and Adams (David Mohloki) have spent the last five years patiently repairing an old wreck of a car which they hope will transport them to a brighter future in the city. But fissures in their friendship begin to show when Kini, the responsible family man, is promoted to foreman at the quarry where they both work, and Adams, a dreamy type, falls helplessly prey to a rapacious working girl. Idrissa Ouedraogo's film has a storybook simplicity, and makes good use of the parched landscape. What hobbles it is some amateur-hour acting and a script that's distinctly programmatic: the constant exchange of dismal, heavy-handed jokes is particularly unfortunate.

Norway's main newspaper, Dagbladet called Schpaaa " the most important Norwegian film of the decade", so I was braced for something out of the common ruck. Erik Poppe's feature debut turns out to be an energetic, though hardly groundbreaking, portrait of disaffected youth on the streets of Oslo. Its focus is the friendship between 13-year-old Jonas (Maikel Andressen Abou-Zelof) and 15-year-old Emir (Jalal Zahedjekta), a war child from former Yugoslavia; along with three other mixed-descent Norwegian kids they hang on the fringes of the Oslo underworld, bunking off school, stealing and, in the time-honoured tradition of youth, smashing things up. But they get in over their heads when a heroin deal backfires and gang loyalties reach critical mass. The filmmakers reveal an ambivalent sympathy for their tearaway subjects, which is fine, but there's nothing especially insightful about the treatment of teenage criminality. And the doomy techno-soundtrack protests "urban jungle" with galumphing self- importance. If you want the dope on Oslo's peculiar drabness, try Pal Sletaune's wonderful Junk Mail.

Graham Greene once complained of Hitchcock's "inadequate sense of reality", and it's true that The 39 Steps (1935) has its fair share of inconsistencies and plot-holes. Yet no matter how many times you watch it, there's something irresistible about this creaking melodrama. Part of the appeal lies in its comedy: the opening music-hall scene is a hilarious view of the London masses at leisure, barracking the MC from the stalls and brawling over nothing. It also emerges in Hitchcock's sense of mischief - his handcuffing of suave Robert Donat to the prissy Madeleine Carroll injects an erotic undertone that's typically perverse. Yet what modern audiences will most respond to is its innocence, the glimpse of a bygone age when it was OK to smoke in theatres, wear fabulous overcoats and invite a mysterious woman back to your pad without a hint of salaciousness - and then cook her a piece of haddock. In those pre-Delia days that must have required some style.

AQ

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