Zen, and the art of fly-fishing


HERE are two things I never thought I'd say: I like a movie about fly fishing, and Robert Redford has directed one of the most ambitious, accomplished films of the year.

"A River Runs Through It," Mr. Redford's beautiful and deeply felt new movie, puts him in an entirely new category as a film maker.

The earlier films he directed, "Ordinary People" (1980) and "The Milagro Beanfield War" (1988), were competent but never hinted that there was a genuine artistic vision behind them. Now they seem like apprentice work for "A River Runs Through It," a film whose subtlety and grace disguise the fact that this is an artistically risky project.

Mr. Redford had to succeed big or not at all, because the story sounds sugary enough to make your teeth ache. Early in this century, two brothers and their Presbyterian-minister father learn about love, understanding and how fishing the Big Blackfoot River of Montana brings you closer to God.

The word boring is bound to crop up about a film that tries to prove that fly fishing is next to godliness. And though the photography is exquisite -- the powerful, sun-kissed river is surrounded by lush green hills -- pretty pictures only take you so far.

But don't fall asleep yet. Like Norman Maclean's autobiographical story, on which it is based, the film is filled with thorny contradictions. Mr. Redford depicts the emotions of people unable to express the depth of their feelings. He creates an unsentimental film about a past that is ripe for cheap nostalgia. And one of his main characters is a man who is never meant to be understood at all. Anyone who expects this film to be simple-minded and simple-hearted is coming from the wrong direction.

Though Mr. Redford does not appear in the movie, his voice is heard throughout as that of the unseen narrator, Norman Maclean, an old man looking back at his life. The story begins in 1910, when Norman and his younger brother, Paul, are boys. This is a family in which their fond but stern father (Tom Skerritt) insists that everyone sit at the table until Paul finishes his oatmeal; the small boy stares at the congealing mess in his bowl for hours.

But the minister is also an expert fly fisherman who teaches his sons to be reverent about the miracles of the natural world.

"In our family there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing," Mr. Redford says, his narration perfectly balancing the wit and sincerity of the opening line from Norman Maclean's 1976 novella. Throughout the film, the fishing scenes -- don't worry, they are not long or about bait -- create the sense that each man is at one with nature but is quite separate from the other people in this family where emotions are rarely expressed.

As a young man, Norman (Craig Sheffer) is the studious, dark-haired one, who returns home after years at Dartmouth to find that the golden-haired Paul (Brad Pitt) has become a reporter. Pitt looks astonishingly like the young Robert Redford, with the same mischievous grin and crinkly smile. The resemblance probably has less to do with the director's ego than with Pitt's charismatic presence and ability to project Paul's glamorous aura so powerfully.

Paul is equally blessed and tortured. He is distant from his family but has an evident deep love for them; he is charming and bright but also a hard drinker, a gambler, a brawler. He is at peace only when fishing, in the place where he discovered a profound affection for nature.

For too long in the film, Paul seems an alluring but underwritten character, whose demons are never explained or explored. Only at the end does it become clear that he is meant to be a beautiful mystery. Paul is an enigma to viewers because Norman -- and it is his story to tell, after all -- cannot understand him any better than we can.

Finally, their father preaches a sermon that sums up the meaning of the film: "It is those we love and should know who elude us. But we can still love them. We can love completely without complete understanding."

It would have helped if the narration had hinted at this mystery sooner. There are lines in the book ("It is a shame I do not understand him.") that would have accomplished that easily enough. Such foreshadowing on screen risks becoming too blunt; as it is, the film errs on the side of subtlety.

Still, this flaw doesn't overwhelm what is lively and heartfelt about the film. It doesn't upset the lovely balance Mr. Redford achieves in rendering his characters' contradictions.

He has learned well from his earlier works. "Ordinary People" was supposedly about repressed emotions. In fact, the story of an unemotional family's delayed reaction to a young man's death had characters emoting all over the place.

The farmers in "The Milagro Beanfield War" felt a spiritual connection to nature, but that kinship seemed abstract, proclaimed instead of dramatized. But "A River Runs Through It" makes the Macleans' unexpressed emotions and religious affinity with the natural world moving and believable.

By the time the film arrives at its lyrical, elegiac end, it has earned all the feeling that comes pouring out. Redford's narration is straightforward and calm, allowing the poetry of Norman Maclean's written words to carry the emotion: "Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it." At last the Sundance Kid has grown up.

Caryn James wrote this for the New York Times News Service. "A River Runs Through It" opens tomorrow at the Senator Theatre.

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