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Nights of Cabiria federico fellini (PG) n It All Starts Today bertrand tavernier (12) n West Beirut ziad doueiri (15)

n koyaanisqatsi godfrey reggio (15)

FOLLOWING THE chilly splendour of The Third Man last week, we have another restored and cherishable antique in Fellini's 1957 film Nights of Cabiria. Central to its spell is the performance of his actress wife Giulietta Masina, as indeed she was to his previous Oscar-winning La Strada (1954). As the dreamy, diminutive Roman streetwalker Cabiria, she personifies a kind of naive resilience: two minutes into the film, her latest boyfriend has grabbed her purse and pushed her into the river. Even then it takes her best friend Wanda (Franca Marzi) to convince her that she's been betrayed.

Sporting ankle socks, a ratty fur and a collapsible umbrella, Cabiria has been likened in her impishness and pathos to Chaplin. The difference, however, is that Masina doesn't beg to be loved: even when she's rescued from drowning she's hilariously ungracious. Fellini structures the film in episodes, the best of which involves her accompanying a famous actor (Amedeo Nazzari) first to a night-club where she dances an exuberant mambo in defiance of the sniffy clientele, then back to his place - a palazzo whose opulence lights up her delicately puckish features. When she twigs that her companion is a big celebrity she bursts into tears: "Who's gonna believe this when I tell them?" Next morning she tiptoes out, having hidden in a cupboard all night after the actor's girlfriend made an unscheduled appearance.

There are sideswipes at the complacency of the Church - the film was passed for distribution only after a friendly cardinal gave it the nod - but Fellini isn't interested in polemic. His film is really about innocence, and how it can survive even the cruellest torments. The uplift of the final scene, young revellers surrounding the distraught Cabiria in an impromptu street carnival, may strike some as blatant laughter-through- the-tears schmaltz, but few actors have negotiated the knife-edge between tragedy and farce as movingly as Masina does here.

Nobody forgets a good teacher, as the advert says, and in Bertrand Tavernier's It All Starts Today, Daniel Lefebvre (Philippe Torreton) is a positively heroic example. As principal of an infant school in Valenciennes, an

economically defeated area of Northern France, he is passionately committed to giving his pupils the best start he can; sadly, his noble intentions are continually frustrated by bureaucrats, snotty school inspectors and negligent parents. What to do about a mother who turns up hours late to collect her daughter, then collapses dead drunk in the playground? Call the social services, and the kid is taken into care; leave it alone, and she goes hungry in a squalid flat.

Tavernier shoots in a documentary style, working from a script he penned in collaboration with his daughter and son-in-law (an infant school headmaster who presumably provided the groundwork). The impression of a real school being run on limited resources is so forcefully conveyed that when vandals break in and trash the place, you feel exactly the daze of indignation that clouds Lefebvre's features. In the low-key accumulation of detail and the naturalistic performances Tavernier catches the spirit of Ken Loach, who would also find much to approve, I imagine, in the film's compassion for the underdog. As for the genial Lefebvre, he really is a kind of hero, if heroism can consist in coaxing little kids towards literacy and in selflessly facing off the authorities at the expense of career promotion. I also liked the way his personal life is insinuated into the film's texture - his old mum, his girlfriend and her troublesome adolescent son, and the slow emergence of his vexed relationship with his violent ex-miner father. This study in principled humanity is the sort of thing to make you feel guilty about not doing a more useful job.

Ziad Doueiri's West Beirut is a coming-of-age story set against the war- torn chaos of mid-Seventies Beirut. Tarek (Rami Doueiri) welcomes the military disruption; it allows him to miss school and do something worthwhile - such as razzing around the streets with his friends Omar (Mohamad Chamas) and May (Rola Al Amin) in search of a shop to develop their Super-8 film. Straying across the city's divide, Tarek finds himself in a brothel in East Beirut where he gets an audience with the legendary madam: "I have a solution to the Middle East's problems," he tells her. Doueiri's roving camera captures the thrill of trespass and danger; his film considers the real anguish of Beirut people terrorised by a city they once loved.

I dozed fitfully through Koyaanisqatsi, a film-poem that compares images of pastoral tranquillity with urban development and asks us to wring our hands at the wickedness of it all. "If we dig precious things from the land, we will invite disaster". You dig? The time-lapse photography and Philip Glass's portentous score lend it the feel not so much of an eco-protest, as a really bad acid trip.

Anthony Quinn