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The almighty automobile seems to connect Art Bell with Michael Moore. The Burlington filmmaker shot "Ride" primarily from moving cars or motorcycles. The latter's first documentary, Roger & Me, focuses on the devastating aftermath of General Motors' decision to close its plants in his hometown near Detroit.

However, Bell suspects that what prompted Moore to invite "Ride" to his weeklong Traverse City Film Festival (TCFF), beginning July 31 in Michigan, was less about wheels than social commentary.

"It's a very political event," Bell notes. His 10-minute project conveys "my subtle digs at the government."

Bell's topical travelogue is a paean to North America, focusing on rural and urban landscapes he captured with his Canon Elph digital video camera through windows, in side-view mirrors or al fresco. These striking, on-the-road images are accompanied by audio excerpts from President John F. Kennedy's 1961 inaugural speech, which includes the famous "Ask not what your country can do for you . . ." line. His words about "the struggle against the common enemies of tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself " resonate through the decades.

"I wish we still had a president who could stand up and speak like that," laments Bell. Audiences apparently agree. "Ride" was recently screened on a beach at the Nantucket Film Festival, where Bell witnessed the crowd's enthusiastic approval.

The path to his upcoming Traverse City odyssey originated a few months ago when Bell helped out on Sicko, Moore's doc-in-progress about the health-care system. Despite the controversial director's years of cinematic muckraking, his Manhattan studio appeared woefully behind the times.

"The crappiness of their equipment was shocking," Bell says. "I was clearly the most techno guy in the room. I've used a lot of spy cameras, so I hooked his people up with one the size of a button that matches your shirt. The military uses them."

A Moore employee asked Bell to leave a copy of "Ride." Another TCFF contact later text-messaged him: "MM was almost moved to tears. He wants it in the fest . . . No laughing matter, dude. You're a star."

Maybe not quite yet. "I don't know where I'm going as a filmmaker," acknowledges Canadian ex-pat Bell, who is currently editing John O'Brien's The Green Movie.

He's a bit stunned by all the acclaim for his short, which will precede a yet-to-be-determined feature in the festival schedule of about 70 films. Entirely handpicked by Moore, the selection incorporates both old fare (Stanley Kubrick's 1964 classic, Dr. Strangelove) and new (Woody Allen's Scoop). The extravaganza promises "movies that entertain and enlighten," while also seeking "to enrich the human spirit and the art of filmmaking -- not the bottom line."

Visit http://www.traversecityfilmfestival.org for details, and go to Art Bell's website -- http://www.dreamlikepictures.com -- to view "Ride."

*******

A combustible mixture of sex and religion plagues several lonely characters in The Holy Girl, by writer-director Lucretia Martel. The 2004 Argentinean release is unspooling Saturday at 7 and 9:30 p.m. as part of the Middlebury College Language Schools International Film Festival, a weekly series held in Dana Auditor-ium. This compellingly oblique slice-of-life in a provincial town doesn't provide any pat resolutions.

Most of the action takes place inside the drab Hotel Termas, where the owners -- siblings Helena (Mercedes Moran) and Freddy (Alejandro Urdapilleta) -- were raised. He often crashes in the suite she shares with her adolescent daughter Amalia (Maria Alche). The family's claustrophobia pervades an establishment that offers little privacy but shelters numerous murky secrets.

During a conference there of ear, nose and throat specialists, the divorced Helena is attracted to the somber, middle-aged, married Dr. Jano (Carlos Belloso). Meanwhile, in a crowd of people on the street listening to the eerie music of a theremin, the physician rubs his crotch against a random young girl who just happens to be Amalia. He's chosen the wrong 14-year-old for his anonymous act of perversion.

Amalia becomes obsessed by an awkward confluence: a Catholic quest to save his soul and her own erotic awakening. She confides in best friend Josefina (Julita Zylberberg) that the encounter with Jano must be just the sort of "sign from God" their catechism teacher has told them to expect. The teen's misguided divine "mission" ripples through the narrative like swimmers in the hotel pool, which serves as a communal repository for lost souls.

Martel's elliptical storytelling, offbeat camera angles and slyly ambient sounds slowly piece together an unsettling saga about the collision of carnality and faith.

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