One can't accuse Carlos Saura, the writer-director of "Cria!", the new Spanish import at the Dupont Circle, of getting off to a slow start. On the contrary, his downbeats are conspicuously disconcerting. It seems unlikely that anything particularly edifying or endearing can be expected from a movie that begins with the subtitles "I love you, I love you . . . You are tricking me, Anselmo!" and a scene in which a little girl eavesdrops on her father as he expires from a fatal heart attack in the middle of sexual congress with the wife of his best friend.

Although "Cria!" carries a note of alarm, a more appropriate title might be "The Spanish They Are a Morbid Race." This Saura is certainly a morbid hombre.While there are indications that the film may have been conceived as a sincere, if opaque and ponderous, exploration of the effects of domestic tragedy on a child's imagination and personality, the finished product resembles a Gothic potboiler, compromised even further by delusions of sensitivity.

Saura appears to flatter himself that he's shedding light on murky childhood psychological depths, but his scenario makes more sense if one reads it as a lurid account of a child murderess in the making. Ana, the juvenile protagonist, played by 9-year-old Ana Torrent, the soulful-eyed little girl seen a few months ago in "The Spirit of the Beehive," has lost her mother, whom she adored, some time before the demise of her father, whom she holds responsible for the initial loss.

The story reaches its climax when Ana, who has earlier dreamed of killing herself and offered to ease her crippled old grandmother into eternity, believes she has succeeded in poisoning her aunt, who has assumed the care of Ana and her two sisters. The aunt turns up alive the morning after the murder attempt, saved by sheer luck: the tin of powder given Ana by her late, distraught mother, who evidently told the child it contained poisoned, turns out to contain some harmless substance.

Although the story is not framed as a recollection, Saura inserts moments in which a grown Ana, portrayed by his wife, Geraldine Chaplin, who also doubles as Ana's mother, speaks directly to the camera about her childhood unhappiness. So, long before [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] Auntie, Saura has at least hinted that Ana matured without doing something dreadful.

However, these inserts are too [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] affected - to be [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] reassuring. Saura [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] remains [WORD ILLEGIBLE] and often bewilderingly [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] his subject in a [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] manupulative way. [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] convince us that [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] planned her first [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] that she's [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] what is represented as an [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] pent-up childhood [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] At the very least [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] statement from the [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] Ana.

It's difficult to follow Suara's thought processes, in part because they seem fundamentally dubious but also because his directing techniques are more mannered than dramatically revealing.For example, little Ana's [WORD ILLEGIBLE] at finding her father dead in bed seconds after watching his paramour flee the premises compells a certain battlement. It's even more baffling when Saura gets around to a scene of Ana wathing impassively as her mother writhes around in pain. Is the kid supposed to have icewater in her veins or has Saura merely placed a child actress in hideouts circumstances without being able to coax appropriate responses from her?

We're supposed to be witnessing an unhappy child's apprehension of tragic events, but Saura appears to be projecting his own preconceptions onto the character of Ana as deliberately as he exploits little Ana Torrent's photo enic aura of melancholy and pathos. The child's memories of or fancied encounters with her late mother seem poorly contrived, the products of maudlin, trashy adult imagination instead of poignant childish imporessions or merely credible flashbacks.

Saura pretends to be on intimate terms with a child's imagination, but one can never shake the suspicion that he's faking it badly. SOmetimes the fakery hits you right between the eyes - for example, when Ana awakes from a nightmare in which she had envisioned her mother making up a bedtime story and, inevitably, her aunt tries to comfort her by starting the identical story, a gesture that provokes an [WORD ILLEGIBLE] response.

Saura's style is so heavy handed that it may be impossible for him to separate [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] interest in the way emotionally stricken children may think from a total dependence on [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] and affections. He's too "sincere" to see through his own [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] and parochial [WORD ILLEGIBLE] "Cria!" is one of those [WORD ILLEGIBLE] trying art [WORD ILLEGIBLE] that [WORD ILLEGIBLE] on morbid insensitivity while coming on as being ultrasensitive.