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Some of these films broke out of the art houses to the general audience. A Man and a Woman, I Am Curious (Yellow), Z--all were hits. Fellini's 3-hour La Dolce Vita, released in subtitled and dubbed versions, grossed the 1961 equivalent of $80 million. Part of its appeal was in the panoramic views of Roman naughtiness and Anita Ekberg's cleavage. But Fellini, along with many other directors, was experimenting with visual language. Imagine: here were new ways of seeing the world on film.

What Hollywood couldn't ignore it would try to co-opt. The year was 1967, the films Bonnie and Clyde (whose script was originally offered to Godard) and The Graduate (with its jazzy ransacking of the European film lexicon), and soon American directors had the auteur status that had been the exclusive province of foreigners. Then U.S. films got gamier, porno went legit, and the raincoat brigade didn't have to take its sex in Swedish.

If the foreign genre wasn't dead, it was missing. Some of the best directors died (Truffaut) or retired (Bergman). Others kept working, but in the U.S. their work was shown sporadically at best. The last films Fellini and Satyajit Ray made never opened here; neither have the most recent films by Godard, Resnais, Antonioni and Kurosawa. The Netherlands' Paul Verhoeven (Spetters) joined a century-long exodus of European talent to Hollywood (where he made Robocop and Showgirls). Denmark's Lars von Trier (Breaking the Waves) stayed in Europe but made films in English. That leaves a new generation of world masters--Greece's Theo Angelopoulos, Taiwan's Hou Hsiao-hsien, Iran's Abbas Kiarostami--that is largely unknown to Americans. "The auteurs are there," says Harvey Weinstein, co-chairman of Miramax Films. "The American marketplace is just not accepting them."

A common rap on modern world cinema is that it's way too austere. To the untutored eye, seeing Hou's Good Men, Good Women or Kiarostami's Through the Olive Trees may indeed be like watching the most beautiful paint dry. But not every movie in the world has to run to the Hollywood pulse; some films can be contemplative and complex. Besides, Americans have also proved indifferent to the vital, popular film industry in India, with its delirious musical melodramas, and in Hong Kong, whose films have enough violent action to put Arnold and Sly out of business. Exoticism, artistry, hurtling pace--these movies have it all. Yet they remain the province of Indian and Chinese emigres and of the cultists who haunt downtown or mail-order video outlets. The one exception, Jackie Chan, was a huge Asian star a dozen years before his first Hong Kong film got a U.S. release.

With audiences hostile to innovation, and in the absence of franchise directors, distributors look for movies that stress heart over art. The three breakout foreign-language hits of the '90s--Cinema Paradiso and Il Postino from Italy and Like Water for Chocolate from Mexico--are nice romantic dramas about love and loss. They were brilliantly promoted by Miramax. But they didn't extend film language as Fellini's or Godard's films did; instead, they gave audiences that warm-puppy feeling. Any Disney movie can do that. So can many of the American independent films that have filled the old foreign-language slots at art houses. And you don't have to read subtitles.

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