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Hearts and Minds 

Flick Chick

Surprise, surprise. It seems foreign-language and domestic independent films are doing better than mainstream fare at The Roxy in downtown Burlington. Hollywood blockbusters cost more to book, according to owner Merrill Jarvis, so it's harder for them to turn a profit. Meanwhile modest, less expensive pictures such as Spellbound, Nowhere in Africa and Nosey Parker appear to have real staying power.

Consequently, Jarvis now says he's seriously interested in making the recently renovated theater all art house, all the time. "If we do that, I want to turn the smallest screening room into a cafe," he explains. "The Roxy draws the kind of people who like to discuss the movies they've just seen. At the moment, they're discussing them in the lobby."

Although the six-screen venue has been Chittenden County's only steady source of offbeat cinema for decades under different entrepreneurs, it was never allowed to fully embrace that alternative identity the way Montpelier's Savoy Theater does. If all goes well at The Roxy, say good-bye to formulaic car chases and teen angst, hello to brilliant little masterpieces from Mexico, Iran or even the USA.

Palestinian writer-director Elia Suleiman's exquisite anguish is evident in Divine Intervention, a 2002 Cannes festival award winner subtitled "a chronicle of love and pain." The critically acclaimed black comedy, which was denied an Oscar nomination because Palestine is not a recognized nation, screens at 7 and 9:15 p.m. this Saturday in the Loew Auditorium at Dartmouth College.

Divine alternates Suleiman's surreal sensibility with sharply observed vignettes of daily life. He employs the same kind of visual magic seen in The Matrix or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon during a fantasy sequence that pits a whirling masked ninja against Israeli soldiers engaged in target practice. But the film also pauses to witness the myriad petty feuds in a Nazareth neighborhood, where people equally oppressed by the cloud of occupation do not necessarily get along with each other.

The film's most tender, albeit virtually silent, commentary comes with two people from different towns -- Suleiman as "E.S." and Manal Khadar as an unnamed woman -- who are forbidden to freely cross a military checkpoint due to heightened political tensions. It's a romance of the persecuted. An adjacent lot is the couple's only meeting place. Holding hands, they watch the arbitrary humiliations inflicted on Arabs stopping at the makeshift border.

Suleiman has the comic genius of a Buster Keaton -- his similarly deadpan facial expressions speak volumes despite the minimal dialogue. When characters do talk, it's in Arabic or Hebrew; English subtitles are provided. The satire is often priceless: A policeman asks his wounded, blindfolded Palestinian prisoner to give directions to a lost tourist.

E.S., whose father (Nayef Fahoum Daher) is dying, conducts psychological warfare by floating a balloon emblazoned with Yasser Arafat's image over "enemy" troops. More poignantly, he stares down a Jewish settler while blasting an old Ameri-can rock song with a new Middle Eastern backbeat: "I put a spell on you, because you're mine..." This riveting moment underscores the misery of adversarial cultures that do indeed "own" each other.

When the Dartmouth Film Society shows Way Down East this weekend, it will mark 73 years since the silent movie was shot in the area. And 24 years have passed since its star, the late Lillian Gish, returned to the Granite State for a career-achievement award from the college. Vermont, too, figures prominently in this reminiscence. Legendary director D.W. Griffith used the Hotel Coolidge in White River Junction for a barn-dance scene in the classic melodrama, which unspools at 7 p.m. Sunday in the Hopkins Center.

The 1920 black-and-white film follows the fortunes of a country girl who marries a kindly farmer after being seduced, impregnated and abandoned by a dastardly chap. Racy stuff for a society just emerging from the Victorian era.

At one point, the heroine is unconscious and adrift on an ice floe in the middle of the raging Connecticut River. Gish performed the stunt without a body double or special effects. "We always believed that the camera was psychic," the actress explained at a Hotel Coolidge press conference in 1979, "that the audience would know in a minute it if was faked."

She also remembered foolishly persuading Griffith to let her long hair and one arm trail in the frigid water for added realism. "My hand still aches today when it gets cold," Gish confessed. "Being young, I had no sense whatsoever."

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