Since Otar Left (15)<br/>Japanese Story (15)<br/>The Reckoning (15)<br/>Carnival In Flanders (12A)

Dead letters from Paris and a big shock in the outback
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As in such classic works as Waiting For Godot and Marion & Geoff, the title character of Since Otar Left (15) is never seen. He's gone to work in France, leaving his sister, his mother and his niece behind in one apartment in Tbilisi, Georgia. Otar's decrepit mother lives for news from him, so when his sister and niece learn that he has died in a construction accident, they pretend that he's still alive and well and living in Paris, and they forge letters from him to read out to her. Over the following months, the youngest woman constructs chic fantasies of la vie Parisienne that contrast painfully with the power cuts and privations of her own rundown city.

As in such classic works as Waiting For Godot and Marion & Geoff, the title character of Since Otar Left (15) is never seen. He's gone to work in France, leaving his sister, his mother and his niece behind in one apartment in Tbilisi, Georgia. Otar's decrepit mother lives for news from him, so when his sister and niece learn that he has died in a construction accident, they pretend that he's still alive and well and living in Paris, and they forge letters from him to read out to her. Over the following months, the youngest woman constructs chic fantasies of la vie Parisienne that contrast painfully with the power cuts and privations of her own rundown city.

The elegant plot echoes that of last year's wonderful Good Bye Lenin!. Although Since Otar Left isn't quite such a treat in terms of joyful comedy, Julie Bertuccelli's film is even more bittersweetly moving as it muses on deception and self-deception, the ways we see our own country and others, and the jealousies, resentments, and tendernesses that co-exist within a family. Each performance is perfectly pitched, although Esther Gorintin, in particular, is sensational as the stubborn old crone who is stronger, kinder and more percipient than her daughter and granddaughter realise. Unbelievably, Gorintin didn't begin her acting career until she was 85.

Japanese Story (15) won so many prizes at last year's Australian Oscars that anyone who didn't work on it needn't have bothered turning up. The Best Actress award went to Toni Collette. Half the size that she was in Muriel's Wedding a decade ago, but in her most heavyweight role since then, she plays a geologist who is landed with the job of driving an investor (Gotaro Tsnashima) from Kyoto around mining sites all over the outback. Initially, the grudging companions stew in mutual irritation and incomprehension, but when their car gets stuck in the desert, they start speaking the same language. Like the protagonists in Lost In Translation, they make a connection that couldn't have happened if they weren't so far from home.

The film, if not the characters, seems to be driving down a very well-worn road, but after an hour a startling event occurs which I won't reveal. The plot is wrenched violently off course, and Collette quakes with the most raw, nerve-jangling emotion conceivable. Taken on their own, these demanding scenes are well worth every award going. But I'm afraid they came much too late for me. By the time Sue Brooks's film gets to its Big Twist I was past caring for her slappable characters, and I'd seen too many self-indulgent, torturously slow scenes of the couple in a car, and in a rowing boat, and gazing at the views, and gazing at yet more views. Still, I wasn't all that sold on Lost In Translation, either.

Barry Unsworth's novel Morality Play has a special place in my heart, mainly because the hero has one of the sexiest names in English literature. Sadly, in the movie version, retitled The Reckoning (15), his name has been changed from Nicholas Barber to Nicholas De Vallance - and some other alterations are even more drastic. As in the book, Nicholas (Paul Bettany) is a young priest who joins a band of travelling players in 14th-century England (Willem Dafoe, Brian Cox and Gina McKee are among his fellow actors). When they come to a town where a woman is to be hanged for child murder, they have an avant-garde idea. Instead of acting out one of their usual Old Testament allegories they'll stage the medieval equivalent of a Crimewatch reconstruction. But with each run-through it becomes clearer that the official account of the killing doesn't add up.

Paul McGuigan, The Reckoning's director, obviously had something much more high-flown in mind than Unsworth's stealthy detective story. Where the novel is a scrupulous accumulation of revelations and historical minutiae, the film swirls with murders, mob scenes and diabolical villains, attention-grabbing editing and philosophical debate. It's not disastrous, but it's not as profound as it thinks it is, either. What with Dafoe's accent hopping from England to Ireland to Transylvania, and both the condemned woman and the countryside looking a lot more Spanish than English, it's a film that seems to have spiralled out of control.

The centrepiece of the NFT's Golden Age Of French Cinema season is Carnival In Flanders (12A), a period romp made by Jacques Feyder in 1935. It's set 300 years earlier. An army of Spaniards descends on a Flemish town, so the cowardly council members go into hiding, leaving their wives to effect a cunning plan to save the day. There's plenty of bawdy and satirical humour, and the film looks splendid, accomplishing its stated mission to show life as it was represented by the region's 17th-century painters. However, it's disappointing that the women's cunning plan in its entirety is to welcome the invaders with open arms - not the most sophisticated plot to stretch over two hours.

n.barber@independent.co.uk

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