A DREAM OF PASSION - Inner Circle and White Flint.

The dream, in "A Dream of Passion," is a noble one, even if its passion is sometimes ludicrous. This film's failure is more interesting than other movies successes.

The picture - which Jules Dassin wrote, produced and directed and which starts his wife, Melina Mercouri - draws a parallei between Euripides' "Medea" and a modern woman who murdered her children to spite her faithless husband. (There were two such actual court cases that came to Dassin's attention before Mercouri had played the Medea on stage.)

Thus the grand mission of the film is to study passions in life so as to interpret a great work of art that seeks, in turn, to explain just such wild forces, Mercouri plays an actress whose director criticizes her Medea as being a coldly modern feminist political statement, "shrinking" the character "to current events," instead of embodying the "love and passion and witchcraft from another world" that he calls "poetry."

First for publicity and then out of fascination, the actress visits a Greek prison to meet an American woman who, like Medea, followed her husband to a land where she would always be a stranger and was then told he was leaving her to marry a younger woman. For having invented, independently, in a modern Athenian suburb, the same punishment that Medea devised for Jason, the wife is dubbed "The Medea of Glyfada."

Like the Medea of Cholcis, who practiced withcraft, the American wife is primitively religious. She is no princess, and she has done no deeds equivalent to Medea's betraying her father, killing her brother and securing the Golden Fleece for Jason and the Argonauts - a closer parallel, in American movie tradition, might be the perennial Indian princess who betrays her people to save the European whom she then follows home. But the American in this story is, like Medea, completely dependent on her husband, believing that her passion entitles her to his permanent loyalty. Like Jason, the American husband believes, instead, that civilization permits dissolving this bond.

Civilized audiences naturally consider divorce more socially acceptable than infanticide. It is therefore quite a feat to make a case dramatically for the barbaric moral law. That Euripides managed this is no suprise, but that Dassin also does, in the story of the American, may be. Ellen Burstyn is eerily effective as the modern Medea, and Melina Mercouri is flamboyantly successful as she plays the ancients one in the rehearsals and performances of the play, which are done in Greek.

The failure comes in Mercouri's characterization of the actress and in the weak, gossipy part of the script in which Dassin attempts to make the actress' life reminiscent of Medea's also, because of incidents in which she has been betrayed by a man, betrayed one herself or been the "other woman" in another's betrayal. The two of them, Mercouri and Dassin, must have gotten so immersed in the play that they began to think all of human behavior is explained by "Medea," which is almost as silly as the theory, maintained by Sophocles fans over the centuries, that all of life is explained by "Oedipus Rex."

Into this ill-conceived aspect of the film are put all kinds of embarrassing scenes, using the mirror-within-a-mirror-within-a-mirror technique of Mercouri playing an actress who is playing an actress who is, ect. It makes you want to cheer when the fine Greek actress Despo, as her prompter, interrupts such self-indulgence in the hope of getting back to business, by saying quietly, "Your creative birth pains don't interest me. I've known you for 30 years, and you bore me."

The technique of building criticism into the movie as disclaimers is used often. There is, for instance, a bit that suggests that some Englishmen making a television show called "The Creative Process" are ridiculous for the very idea when it is, in fact, a theme of the film itself. When the director ends a rehearsal by telling Mercouri she is terrible, it seems to be the film's apology for her classic acting. But, in fact, Mercouri offers several interpretations of the role, as shown in different rehearsals of the same speeches, and each is solidly grounded in the play, as well as compelling. One has only to listen to her pedestrian Jason to see how difficult that is to do.

It's not that "Medea gets lost somewhere along the way," as the director tells her at one point. It is that there are several Medeas - the play survives because it speaks to the modern world as well as the ancient - and her feminist interpretation is as valid as her poetically pathetic one. Whan a character has that many possibilities, it becomes quite believable that she can strike again.