"For forty-seven years they had been married. How deep back the stubborn, gnarled roots of the quarrel reached, no one could say -- but only now, when tending to the needs of others no longer shackled them together, the roots swelled up visible, split the earth between them, and the tearing shook even to the children, long since grown."

That's the chilling opening and the theme of Tillie Olsen's story "Tell Me a Riddle," from which three young producers called the Godmothers have made an extraordinary film. Many powerful talents went into this, and it's a powerhouse of sentiment.

But that very chill, the most frightening part of Olsen's depiction of old age, had to be sacrificed to get the hot tears this film extracts.

Feeble bodies frailly encasing passionate souls occupy this film: Here the quarrel between husband and wife concerns only their retirement, thus making it of comparatively recent origin. The suggestion that they part because they differ on how to spend their old age is dispersed by the eloquent plaint of the husband that he would be lost without "my comrade, my everything, my girl." Melvyn Douglas, as the old paperhanger, and Lila Kedrova, as his moribund wife, perform one of the great sensual love scenes when they cut through the cobwebby details of their lives to rediscover the fire that has stoked them. Brooke Adams, as their devoted granddaughter, an angel on rollerskates, is the eager recipient of their emotional heritage.

But the film, often meticulous in repeating the story line, achieves its emotional impact by offering reassurances about these old people: Yes, the love is still there. Yes, the soul and the intellect will live on. There's a tremendous legacy left at the old woman's deathbed, and someone standing by who's worthy of receiving it.

The novella offered no such hope. "Tell me a riddle" is the teasing demand of younger grandchildren, and the answer -- from a life-time of experience -- is a churlish "I know no riddles." That was no dear old child-oriented Granny, half of a devoted couple, but a person who'd outlived her feelings for other people, including husband, children and grandchildren. "Being at last able to live within, and not move to the rhythms of others" is her remaining wish as she snaps off her hearing aid while her husband is talking.

It's amazing that the filmmakers have used the same material to affirm the value of ebbing life, and that director Lee Grant and the actors have made the more uplifiting statement with such emotional force. Kedrova, brimming with unused excesses of thought and love, and Douglas, brittle with over-use of mind and limbs, will wrench you apart between them. Flashbacks have been used to reflect the shifts of senility, giving a dignified logic to erratic behavior, and a corresponding cruelty to the cold view of the outsider.

It's a sensitive and clever handling of the realized fears of aging -- with the exception of hopelessness.

TELL ME A RIDDLE -- At the Avalon 2.