War crimes

FILMS: Some Mother's Son Terry George (15) The Starmaker Giuseppe Tornatore (18) Beyond the Clouds Michelangelo Antonioni (18) Robinson in Space Patrick Keiller (PG)

The 1981 IRA hunger strike, in which 10 men died, was all about words. The IRA members who filled the cells were fighting to be recognised as prisoners of war, rather than criminals. When the British government would not concede to this, the inmates began refusing their meals, one by one. In the new film Some Mother's Son, a widowed schoolteacher named Cathleen Quigley has to cope with the arrest of her son Gerard (Aidan Gillen) after he is involved in a shoot-out with British soldiers. She visits him in prison, and her face contorts when she realises that physical contact is forbidden, that she cannot squeeze her boy to her chest any more.

When she learns that he is at the start of the hunger strike which has nearly claimed the life of Bobby Sands (John Lynch), you hear the terrible clanging echo of hope vanishing. The prison guards in the film don't loiter outside the cells with hot meals to make the inmates salivate, as was rumoured at the time. But the authorities do something similar to the mothers - they offer them the opportunity to remove their sons from the hunger strike should they fall into a coma, forcing Cathleen to a point where she must choose between her son's life and the cause he is prepared to die for.

Terry George and Jim Sheridan, who wrote In the Name of the Father, employ Cathleen as a way in for audiences, but they don't use our identification with her as a means of compromising her as a person. Instead, George and Sheridan trace her shifting perspective, and unfaltering sympathy, with meticulous attention: her love for Gerard frequently jars with her mistrust of the IRA, but the film isn't afraid to reveal the contradictions and discrepancies that this collision produces.

There are some stylistic peculiarities that don't always fit, like the cross-cutting between a school folk-dancing class and an attack on the British Army, which ends up playing like some surreal Riverdance set piece. But this is mostly a sensitive and painfully moving picture that illuminates the suffering and the strength at the edge of the frame. Helen Mirren has great nobility and understatement as an actress, and you may not even realise it until you see her crumble. Her eyes struggle to comprehend, her mouth attempts to form words that only come in brusque little bursts. It's a neat counterpoint to Aidan Gillen, who plays Gerard with a nice measure of the cocksure arrogance which being a young man in the army - any army - can bring. Even as the life disappears from his face, you can discern traces of the will that drove him to the brink of death.

Giuseppe Tornatore's The Starmaker feels like a self-conscious reply to those dissenters who complained that his Cinema Paradiso was puerile and sentimental - but who wants to pay to see a director's correspondence with his critics? The Starmaker marks some progression from that earlier film. It acknowledges that cinema can inspire and injure simultaneously; that it can come within inches of the truth, but may never actually attain that precious commodity. That's an improvement on Cinema Paradiso, which had little to say for itself beyond "isn't going to the pictures great, and isn't it a shame we all have to get old and die?". But it's still a long way from being perceptive or sophisticated.

It begins promisingly, and darkly. We've all seen enough films to know that if a mysterious stranger arrives in town and he isn't Clint Eastwood, then the good and the fair had better cling on to their souls. This visitor, the talent scout Joe Morelli (Sergio Castellitto), arrives in 1953 Sicily with a marquee and a movie camera. He is going to make stars out of ordinary people: one screen-test is all it takes. Naturally, everyone is crowding to get before the lens. But when they do, in the privacy of Joe's tent, they each dredge up the woe that's lodged inside them like a peach-stone. Joe is the catalyst for their self-discovery. Is he a con man? Of course. The real question is: where's that special lady who's going to chisel through to his heart?

Once you realise that this is the picture's main concern, you lose faith in Tornatore the social satirist. Joe softens in the glare of a young Sicilian named Beata (Tiziana Lodato), and the film softens with him. Beata's radiance and innocence quickly prepare you for her desecration (radiance and innocence rarely signal any other fate), and if you cotton on to this, the remaining hour is like being on death row. Only less fun.

Beyond the Clouds was originally scheduled to open last year, in which case it would have almost entirely compensated for 1996's paucity of good European film-making. It marks the return of the director Michelangelo Antonioni, who comes to the picture, 13 years after his last feature, without the power of speech, but with as potent and articulate a voice as you will find anywhere in cinema.

Four stories of love and lust - enigmatic, unrequited or unresolved, all lifted from Antonioni's own writings - are bound by a wandering film director (John Malkovich) who recounts, observes or participates in them. Carmen (Ines Sastre) and Silvano (Kim Rossi-Stuart) engage in a brief encounter so electrifying that consummation threatens to diminish it: the director meets a young girl (Sophie Marceau) who reveals that she has murdered her father; Patricia (Fanny Ardant) finally deserts the husband (Peter Weller) who has been unfaithful to her; and the desire which a young man (Vincent Perez) feels for a beautiful woman (Irene Jacob) is put to the test.

Antonioni's camera moves elegantly in and out of these characters' lives, alighting on the pain and longing which they struggle to understand, and eloquently expressing those feelings through starkly beautiful compositions, or ghostly fades, or open space and silence. Only the linking scenes lack conviction, though that isn't to slight Wim Wenders, who directed them. The stories themselves have such an intangible, sensuous quality that the structure anchors them. A minor chink in a blindingly impressive suit of armour.

Patrick Keiller makes documentaries - sort of. Robinson in Space, his follow-up to the barbed and brilliant London, is a tour of England. Like the country, it is by turns sinister, funny, depressing, inspiring and dull. The camera engages in a series of mostly static shots that provide a cumulative picture of England's industry and history, with commentary from an enigmatic narrator (Paul Scofield) who is engaged in some kind of spying mission with his chum Robinson. The film draws on Rimbaud, Baudelaire and Wilde, pausing occasionally to note a ladybird moving across a glass, or a record signing session by Adam Ant, and more or less defies descriptionn

All films go on release tomorrow

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