FILM / The gospel according to Ken: The British are Coming: And two turned up - all in the same week

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KEN LOACH has been making films preoccupied with social issues and the human casualties of political weather since the Sixties and the screenwriter Jim Allen is hardly less of a veteran as an elegist and agitator, but Raining Stones shows a development that would have been unthinkable in the past. A priest plays a major and positive role in the story, and though the mouthpieces for traditional socialism duly say so, the Church is not seen as an essential part of the problem. Forget about the opium of the people; this is a case, almost, of Catholic Come Home.

Almost, because it isn't necessary to suppose that Loach or Allen or both have undergone recent conversions. It's just that beyond a certain point social deprivation comes to seem a test of faith, even if that faith is only faith in justice or the future. It becomes natural to think in terms of Job's sufferings rather than Thatcher's legacy.

Catholicism permeates the film not so much with doctrine as with imagery. When we first see the protagonist Bob (Bruce Jones) and his mate Tommy (Ricky Tomlinson) they are kidnapping a sheep in a deceptively pastoral landscape. This turns out to be one of a whole series of get-subsistent-quick schemes: they plan to kill the beast, cut it up themselves and then sell the meat round the local pubs. They can't face the actual killing when it comes to it, and end up getting a butcher to do the job round the back of his premises, in exchange for some work on a fireplace, but that doesn't take away the potential meaning of the sacrifice. The sheep turns out to be elderly, come to that, and the meat hard to get rid off but, nevertheless, Raining Stones starts as it means to go on, with the Blood of the Lamb.

The next scene is of Bob's daughter Coleen being prepared for her first communion. Broke as he is, and against his wife's wishes, and even the advice of the priest, Bob insists on buying a whole new outfit for Coleen to wear on her big day. This perverse extravagance is his tragic flaw, if he is a tragic hero, but there is always the possibility, in a context suffused with religious feeling, that this too is a sacrifice, in its way an act of faith and of recognition - like Mary Magdalene's pouring out of precious oil for a humble purpose.

Bob's father-in-law differs with him about religion, and is paid the compliment of having the film named after one of his pronouncements: 'When you're a worker, it rains stones on you seven days a week.' The paradox of the film, though, is that it only feels like a sermon, both abstract and hectoring, when it rehearses the argument against religion.

One of the most touching scenes is where Bob tries to explain the Last Supper to Coleen in terms of 'tea'. He's a good Catholic but a disastrous amateur catechist. It turns out to be as much a mistake to tackle trans-substantiation at the dinner table as it is to tell a child exactly what goes into those yummy sausages.

Loach may not have intended to give God the best tunes only to show that there can be good men within a corrupt Church, but the effect in Raining Stones is to give a new dimension to a style of film- making, and an approach to society, that was always admirable but had its share of pitfalls. If you show sympathetic characters struggling against deprivation you run the risk of reproducing the hateful category of the deserving poor - as if less likeable people in the same situation would have no right to better conditions.

There is a harsher tradition in cinema than Loach's, represented by Bunuel's Los Olvidados, Babenco's Pixote and, as it happens, by a television film broadcast next week, Antonia Bird's Safe, which acknowledges and even insists on the fact of brutalisation. After all, if the struggle for survival left what we like to think of as people's essential natures intact, social justice would be less urgent a priority, but brutalisation also works to make people, to an ignorant eye, seemingly deserving of their fate.

This other tradition authorises a wider range of emotions, giving us permission to feel fear, anger and even disgust when we're confronted with society's victims. Such films break the stranglehold of pity, and force us to see things afresh, at some cost to our sense of our own righteousness.

Raining Stones, despite its title, stresses resilience rather than despair. It has some forced moments and a soft ending, but it also contains a scene of astonishing power and ugliness towards the end, when the loan sharks pay a house call, which is carefully prepared for but still seems to come from nowhere. Suddenly we see social forces with their gloves off, and it takes a lot to console us after that.

Danny Cannon's debut feature, The Young Americans, could have been made on a different planet and not just another part of the country. It uses London locations and an oddly assorted cast of heavyweights and newcomers (Harvey Keitel and Viggo Mortensen as American goody and baddie operating here, Craig Kelly as the young British protagonist) to produce a love-letter to mainstream American cinema. If the film was any more hell-bent on impressing Hollywood with its maker's employability, it would be hanging round the pool at the Chateau Marmont offering producers back rubs.

Everything about The Young Americans seems packaged, from the title down. There are no young Americans in the film, unless you count Mortensen, who has moved in on the London drug scene and started to recruit young Londoners as hit men. But 'The Young Londoners' isn't a title that would sell on either side of the Atlantic.

The film isn't a thriller, it's just like a thriller. It's full of absurd moments that help the plot lurch forward, like a killer on a motorcycle helpfully taking his helmet off so that Keitel can take a good look at him. It's full of social issues that are treated as non-issues, like an inter-racial romance that apparently creates no ripples in a chauvinistic Irish community. The one thing The Young Americans has going for it is some lovely lighting. Even when Keith Allen is shot, the wall behind him looks lovely. It's like modern art. You'd hang that on your wall, so you would.