FILM / Director of Lecter turns to the rector: Cousin Bobby (PG) - Everyman; Straight Out of Brooklyn (15) - Renoir

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IF YOU have just won five Oscars and conquered the world, you can do what you like. You want dollars 50m to make a blockbuster? It's yours. You want to take a camera on to the streets and shoot a home movie? Er, sure. No, really, that's fine. That's what Jonathan Demme did, anyway, fresh from The Silence of the Lambs. A relation of his, an Episcopalian priest, was kicking up a fuss down in Harlem. Demme got wind of it, and the story blew him away. The result is a snappy, modest slice of documentary, Cousin Bobby - 'a film by cousin Jonathan'.

As Christian soldiers go, the Rev Robert Castle is pretty damn onward. He's built along Rod Steiger lines, although Steiger has gone a touch fleshy over the years, whereas Bobby Castle is slowly turning into pure granite. You could get a whole labrador through his dog collar. It all fits an old-fashioned image of the Church militant, but the lines of battle have been redrawn. When the camera first sees this man, we expect the shake of his fist, the threat of certain hellfire. But cousin Bobby has another, more pressing vision: he wants a new traffic light, and he wants it now.

His parish is a showcase of American social malaise, though until now nobody wanted to come and take a look: this movie feels like an explorer's journal, oceans away from the comforts of home and Hollywood. The population is mostly black and Hispanic, just about hanging on to the poverty line unless drugs pull them out of sight. In one scene Bobby visits a tenement block, grilled and rotted by fire. It looks like the hold of a shipwreck; the camera plays over the walls, looking for compositions that aren't there. I thought of last year's Backdraft - the way it recreated an arson scene, with all the mess falling into place. Here it just falls apart.

This could easily have been too grim and gungy for its own good: think of all the documentaries that have rubbed our noses in it rather than opening our eyes. But Demme stays on watch, and what keeps Cousin Bobby tense is the tug of war between style and disorder; it keeps drifting into asides and anecdotes, then suddenly pulling itself together. Even the ending, a stack of riot footage, feels split between elegy and foreboding. This moral sway - who am I to film one man's mission, shape the life of a hothead into a cool 70 minutes? - is far more sombre than anything else in Demme's work, but reminds us just how itchy he can be; films such as Married to the Mob and Something Wild tried on different moods like a rail of costumes.

Oddly enough, it's Castle himself who conjures most unease. Demme may be hip and quirky, standing there in the movie with arms folded, tossing in curious questions; but Bobby gives off a strident passion that both charms and deafens us, even when we know he's right - especially then, in fact. Maybe that's one of the minor virtues of a saint: not to give a damn about being a bore. It could also be the only way to get things done: 'they had to organise an entire civil rights movement just to fill in a hole,' muses Bobby, gazing at a newly mended road. Mind you, what are we to make of his support for the Black Panthers, dreaming of holding off the cops with a wanted man? 'Him and me and a couple of rifles on the roof . . .' Greater love hath no man than this, that he pick up his gun for his friends.

I think - at least I hope - that Demme knows just what an oddball his cousin is, how a craze for justice can turn into caricature; like the audience, the director must have been surprised to find a religious life so loaded and grimy with secular concerns. At one point Bobby gets stuck in the political groove, talking fiercely about 'my credibility in the community'. Demme nods and says, 'meanwhile . . .', and drags him gently back to talk of uncles and grandparents, to a time when credibility didn't matter.

All along, you feel, what Demme really wanted to make was a family film - who knows, Bobby could be the sanest member of a loony clan. We see lots of gatherings, cranky reminiscences, album snapshots flashing and fading on screen. The editing is a marvel here, full of punch and quick pathos - traces of Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs. These homegrown feelings are spiky enough to ward off any suspicion that Cousin Bobby is just a devotional exercise in radical chic. Sure, the film does warm itself on a fiery character, but it's smart enough not to get too close.

From Harlem to Brooklyn, and another dose of stifled lives. America cinema looks chronically immature at the moment, clawing for extremes. On the one hand there are big, flash films like Far and Away, which say you can have anything you want; and on the other, small, cramped films like Straight Out of Brooklyn, which say you can't even get anything you need. Ever since the Depression, of course, movies have fed greedily off both attitudes, but at least the diet has been mixed. Straight Out of Brooklyn depresses you not because it's full of miserable people, but because it makes them look even more miserable than they are. The deprivation that it shows is a straight social fact, and almost certainly insoluble, but someone should have warned the director not to confuse it with the poverty of art. Mind you, the kid had enough on his plate: Matty Rich was 19 years old when he made this film, although you wouldn't know it. You'd think he was more like 16 and had watched too much TV. He also stars as Larry, one of a trio of young disgruntled blacks led by Dennis Brown (Lawrence Gilliard Jr). Dennis lives with his sister and parents, but only just. Every night he lies awake and listens to the screams and smashes from the next room. Oddly enough, the film only comes alive when it quits the teenagers and looks at the grown-ups. Ann D Sanders is especially fine as Dennis's mother; blue with beatings, she still stands on her dignity when she can hardly stand up. There's a shy sense of fight in her performance, which shames the dour young heroes who are supposed to be carrying the film.

All three are looking for a fast exit from Brooklyn; Dennis thinks he knows the way out. He borrows his uncle's gun, in the way that other people borrow tennis racquets or coffee-grinders, and from then on everything goes downhill. It was heading there already, but now it can't stop. I was wondering where I'd seen this plot before. I finally got it: it was last week, in Ernest Dickerson's Juice. Both are crass and raucous, but Juice picks up speed and thumps along to a strong climax. Straight Out of Brooklyn seems almost proud of its sloth, daring us to ask for anything different.

You would expect Rich to come up with something raw, but raw should at least mean fresh. The French New Wave directors made cheap bolshy movies too, but they had the honesty to look delirious at their good luck and their new toys - here was a chance to open up. Rich seems to be closing down before he's even started, to have arrived at all the conclusions he'll ever need. So what if his movie was apparently recorded inside a cake-tin? Who cares about his stale lighting? Well, I do, for one, but none of that would matter if he had something new to show for it, instead of something obvious to say.

'Cousin Bobby' (PG): Everyman (071-435 1525); 'Straight Out of Brooklyn' (15): Renoir (071-837 8402).