FILM / NEW RELEASES: Trust accounts: Sheila Johnston is disturbed by a week of suspect innocence and innocent suspects, while . . .

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The Independent Culture
When a child hangs himself for fear of a molester, when a rock superstar dances on a knife's fine edge between philanthrope and paedophile, when the trial for a toddler's murder regularly exhibits new brutalities - how can we, reading these sad stories daily, believe in the innocence of the friendship between adult and child? Thank goodness that, in movieland, we can sometimes snuggle back into this innocence. In the movies a man can still take a child by the hand with impunity.

Mel Gibson's The Man Without a Face (12), his first film as a director, begins with a dream: a boy (Nick Stahl), the dullard of his family, wins his wings at a military academy, summa cum laude. His mother looks on misty-eyed, his big sister is silenced for once in her life and a gorgeous female cadet sashays adoringly at his side. He describes the fantasy as 'a John Wayne meets Hugh Hefner philosophy of life' which also sums up the movie rather well.

Having, in reality, flunked his entrance exam, Stahl seeks extra coaching from the town freak, a recluse with a hideously disfigured face and a mysterious past. This chap, played by Gibson, turns out to be a marvellous teacher, and their summer together a grand second chance for both concerned: Stahl gets a second shot at college, Gibson learns to live again. But those mistrustful, mean-minded townsfolk impugn dark motives to their friendship.

The film is for: hard discipline, authority, male bonding, militarism (the year is 1968 and Stahl's career ambitions are set against the nadir of the Vietnam War). It is emphatically against: women (Stahl's mother and two sisters, who are far brighter than he) and the assorted trendy hairballs who form his mother's entourage.

The Gibson character is altogether a curious creation, half hunk, half Freddy Krueger (the divide runs conveniently down the middle of his face, so that, in profile, he may pass as either hunk or monster). You'd expect this to be the exterior sign of a complex Jekyll and Hyde personality but, no, he is superior, and without stain. Gibson has thoroughly whitewashed his material - in Isabelle Holland's source novel, the tutor (and quite possibly his charge) are gay. Taxed with this at the press conference, Gibson muttered, 'I didn't want to make a film about a guy who molested a child. The film never says that Justin's not gay.' But it indubitably implies it. I found this movie - which is well directed and convincingly performed - illiberal, dishonest and disturbing beneath the heartwarming veneer.

The Stolen Children (15) turns on a similar conundrum. A young carabiniere is charged with escorting an 11-year-old prostitute and her younger brother to a children's home, which refuses to accept them. The journey becomes an odyssey down through Italy, and a reflection on the country's poverty, corruption and bitter north-south divide. But the film is also about the growing love and trust between the impulsive, naive young man and the children who, in many ways, are older than he - a trust which inevitably turns sour when the caribiniere is put on the carpet for presuming to care.

This is not a Hollywood melodrama - the Italian title, Il Ladro di Bambini, evokes Vittorio De Sica's neo-realist classic Ladri di Biciclette (Bicycle Thieves). It's long, low- key and not a jot sentimental. It earned the director, Gianni Amelio, a Best Film Felix, his second in three years.

The same quiet values underpin The Stranger (U), Satyajit Ray's last film. A Calcutta couple is discomfitted when a man professing to be the wife's long-lost uncle invites himself to stay. The woman's impulse is to welcome him, but the husband is suspicious: this is at best a sponger, at worst a conman and thief. And the 'uncle', a cosmopolitan charmer tipping out a cornucopia of stories and 'magic' tricks, seems at first a shifty customer.

This is a plainly filmed, often verbose chamber piece - it even uses the creaky dramaturgical device of the intruder who throws a tight community into disarray. But it teems with ideas, wit and engaging characters. And it casts a wry, illuminating look at a middle-class culture that's apparently Westernised and sophisticated (the screenplay hops freely from English to Bengali) but is, in fact, both parochial and out of touch with its own rural roots - it's not hard to see the uncle as a Ray spokesman. Amid all the hoopla about Fellini's death, it was rarely mentioned that his last films didn't make it into British cinemas - this is a welcome chance to see the swansong of another of the cinema's grand masters.

So I Married an Axe Murderer (12) is Mike Myers' first film since Wayne's World, and essentially, he's Wayne again, 10 years older but not a whole lot wiser and still terrified and fascinated by the female gender. Having ditched a succession of girlfriends for the flimsiest reasons, he falls, big-time, for the babe-acious butcheress who sells him haggis (Scottish readers will be interested to hear that these retail for dollars 19.75 apiece in San Francisco). But soon he's convinced she's a serial killer.

This genial, erratic comedy is mounted with some zest: it's visually interesting with lots of fast wipes, bright colours and peculiar angles (check the long tracking shot from the point of view of an oversized cappucino cup). The supporting cast is good, too: Charles Grodin as a grumpy motorist, Alan Arkin as a pussycat police chief, Brenda Fricker and Myers (again, in impenetrable disguise and accent) as our hero's eccentric Scottish parents.

The attempts at sub-Vertigo guignol towards the end are a little lame, and the Myers character suffers from the Adrian Mole syndrome (what was amusing in the clueless teenage Wayne looks irritating in the grown man). But it didn't deserve its instant box-office death in America - unlike The Concierge (PG), a lame comedy about a hotel desk clerk that even Michael J Fox and Barry Sonnenfeld, the director of the Addams Family films, can't rescue.

Mario van Peebles' Posse (15) is inspired by the interesting fact that one-third of cowboys were black (many enfranchised slaves headed West). Like many westerns, the genre story masks modern concerns - reform vs revolution, education vs shoot- outs, in short, Martin Luther King vs Malcolm X (guess who wins). But the director doesn't have the confidence to tell a rattling good yarn; his film is hopelessly over-directed, and also over-enamoured of its star (one Mario van Peebles).

Violent Cop (no cert), despite the title, is an elegiac piece by the Japanese director Takeshi Kitano. Steeped in languour, not to say longueurs, it feels European rather than American (the music track is rock Satie). A curio, but inferior to Takeshi's later Sonatine, which opens here next year.

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