WHEN a god returns to earth after a long absence you sit up and take respectful notice. Michelangelo Antonioni, as unassailable a member of the cinematic pantheon as one can readily cite, has been absent from our screens for so long - since Identification of a Woman, 15 years ago - that some cinema-goers must have assumed he was dead. Others, better informed, will have heard of the stroke which impaired his movement and robbed him of speech (a cruel physical enactment of his studies in non- communication?) and assumed that this illness was enough to drive any director into retirement, let alone a man in his eighties. And yet, with a little help from his friends, he has somehow brought into being another film, with a title that smacks of a long residence in heaven: Beyond the Clouds (18). Before mulling and niggling over its details, there is only one appropriate response. Welcome back, maestro.

Beyond the Clouds takes the form of four short episodes, each one a love story of sorts, adapted from Antonioni's book of sketches and "nuclei", That Bowling Alley on the Tiber (1983), linked by a framing narrative - the work of Wim Wenders - following the peregrinations of a nameless, English-speaking film director, played by a po-faced John Malkovich, who wanders around France and Italy in search of images (and wearing some enviable shirts and jackets, courtesy of Giorgio Armani). Each of the four stories features a young or young-ish woman of quite indecent beauty. The first, ("Chronicle of a love affair that never existed") is set in Antonioni's home town of Ferrara, and has Ines Sastre as a teacher whose affair with a young man never reaches any more direct consummation than an erotic encounter in which he brings his hand to within half an inch of her naked skin, following her curves - a caress without contact.

The second concerns a sudden sexual encounter between the narrator and a saleswoman (Sophie Marceau) who has murder- ed her father. He stalks her to her shop by the harbour in Portofino; before long they are thrashing around in the sack. The third, a Parisian tale, is about the breakdown of two marriages: a wife (Fanny Ardant) flees her philandering husband (Peter Weller) then comes to teeter on the brink of an affair with another man (Jean Reno) whose wife has just deserted him. The final story, "This Body of Dirt", is about a likely lad who pesters a comely lass (Irene Jacob) all over town until she reveals that she's about to enter a convent.

While the obvious assumption would be that Malkovich is a fairly straightforward Antonioni surrogate (and, in episode two, wish-fulfilment figure) throughout, Antonioni has hinted that the character may have more than a dash of Wim. In either case, it seems likely that we're supposed to take this director's voice-over'd ruminations fairly straight, especially the early one in which he insists, "Don't get me wrong, I'm not a philosopher". It's a useful emphasis, because here, as in Antonioni's early films, too impatient and literal-minded a hunting for truffles of significance may tend to yield up banality. Antonioni's genius has never run to paraphrasable wisdoms: he's an artist who deals primarily in spaces and tones and forms - in this film, bodies dwarfed by Renaissance palaces or isolated in the cruel emptiness of a glass-walled apartment, elegantly symmetrical crane-shots up a flight of stairs that flow in sympathy with a lover running to and away from his woman, the visible "fragrance" (Antonioni's term) of a rain- soaked street in provincial France.

There are many such memorable sights in Beyond the Clouds (and a lot of them, it should be acknowledged, are composed of naked female flesh). But though few could deny Antonioni's film its surface beauties, some would question how much there is beneath the pretty face, especially when so much of the dialogue is so dismayingly fatuous. To which scepticism the best response might be Oscar Wilde's maxim, quoted in another of this week's releases, Robinson in Space: "It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible." At its best, Beyond the Clouds is an act of recognition of that mystery.