"Northern Lights," opening today at the Inner Circle, won the "Golden Camera" award for best first feature at the 1979 Cannes Festival. The film's obvious sincerity, stark black-and-white imagery and pious evocation of an unfamiliar, heroic chapter in the annals of radical political agitation may have appeared especially virtuous against the carnival backdrop of Cannes.

There's something to be said for these virtuous attributes, but the fact remains that "Northern Lights" is a tentative and unfulfilled rendering of potentially stirring, epic material.

The young independent filmmakers responsible for "Northern Lights," John Hanson and Rob Nilsson, were born and raised in North Dakota. The scenario recalls the circumstances that led to the creation of a successful reform party of Norwegian immigrant farmers, the Nonpartisan League, in 1915-16, when the filmmakers grandparents were young.

Hanson and Nilsson usher us into the past awkwardly, exchanging narrators in mid-stream and relying far too heavily on voice-over narration and lengthy printed legends. The continuity grows progressively dogged as protagonist Ray Sorenson chronicles the hard times and misfortunes confronting his family and other farmers in the winter of 1915-16.

One never doubts that dire necessity inspired the farmers to attempt to capture the state house in the next election or that someone like Sorenson would evolve into a political organizer. But while we're convinced that such dramatic responses to adversity occurred, we don't see them embodied in the actions of the characters. It may have happened in the past, but it isn't adequately depicted on the screen, because Hanson and Nilsson don't trust or extend themselves as dramatists.

True, their production resources were limited, and it's a feat to complete any presentable feature on a shoestring budget and on-again-off-again shooting schedule, but the filmmakers are clearly inhibited by their reluctance to tackle obligatory dramatic composition.

The story gets little thrust from such typically lackluster narration as "Our lives go on and now new problems appear." The ongong life and the fresh problems need to manifest themselves far more vividly. More often than not, Hanson and Nilsson use narration to tell us what the characters are thinking and feeling instead of inventing scenes that would show us.

Sorenson files the following report after returning from a canvas of the countryside: "February 5: How time flies! All I wanted to hear about was Inga, but Murphy the staunch Socialist had a lot on his mind." Unfortunately, we never do hear Murphy unburden himself or receive sufficient updating on the romance of Sorenson and his beloved Inga, whose marriage plans have been destroyed by the enconomic plight of their families.

Some filmmakers have the ability to depict and resolve complex feelings or issues in a few inspired images. Jan Troell frequently displayed this ability in "The Emigrants" and "The New Land," which were epic in running time as well as emotion. Before long we'll have a magnificent example of almost purely visual storytelling before us in the form of Carroll Ballard's "The Black Stallion," in which one image after another is worth a thousand words.

Lacking the expressive genius of a Troell or Ballard, Hanson and Nilsson are obliged to develop their subject matter with more conventional dramatic tools. Since they pick them up only gingerly in "Northern Lights" and wield them with no sign of confidence, it will take at least one more venture to determine whether they possess a knack for dramatic representation or would find documentaries a more congenial form.

The North Dakota locales often impose themselves powerfully in the spaciously barren compositions captured by cinematographer Judy Irola. While the film probably derives more power from its look than the scenario or characterizations, the look is also too consistently bleak to be contemplated gladly over feature length. It begins to suggest a visual shroud, and the story isn't calculated to be all that defeatist. Indeed, there are fleeting moments of almost Rockyesque triumph.

Many of the supporting players, recruited from residents of the principal location, Crosby, N.D., seem to project more attractively than the leads, young professional actors cast in San Francisco. Hanson and Nilsson may feel more secure integrating the local people, and the locals seem to authenticate the material to a disproportionate extent.

Ray and Helen Ness, the couple cast as the hero's parents, are particularly appealing. The nicest sequence in the film is the large, boisterous party announcing the engagement of Ray Sorenson and Inga Solness (Robert Behling and Susan Lynch play the roles) which begins with a bit of narration that sets the scene -- and the period -- admirably: "There are two things mother doesn't tolerate -- missing grace and talking politics at table."