ARGENTINE director Maria Luisa Bemberg, like Joan Collins, Grandma Moses, and Colonel Sanders, is a late-bloomer. For that matter so is her remarkable new movie, "Camila," a 150-year-old melodrama that's as full as spice as the Colonel's secret recipe. Only the 62-year-old's third feature film, it was a 1984 Academy-Award nominee.

Argentinian Susu Pecoraro, with her broad, face and dun-colored hair, is Camila, a sparkling Buenos Aires socialite who falls in love with her confessor. Imanol Airas, a handsome Spanish actor, plays Father Ladislao Gutierrez, the young Jesuit priest who runs away with Camila to a country village, only to be pursued by the government and eventually jailed. Theirs is a hugely tragic story, their unfortunate fate brought on by his guilt and her great faith, the political and patriarchial pressures of the day.

This true story of passion and repression, a favorite among Argentines, has come to symbolize not only artistic, but political emancipation for the country. In truth, "Camila" could not have been made prior to the election of Raoul Alfonsin in 1983 and the beginning of "La Democracia."

Bemberg's work, sensual and controlled, is also technically astounding -- all the more so since she directed her first major film, "Momentos," just four years ago. Known for her feminism as well as her craftsmanship, she speaks here through the garrulous Mrs. O'Gorman (Elena Tasisto), who says of marriage, "The best jail is one you cannot see."

Political considerations aside, the film is staggeringly lovely, a South American ''Thorn Birds," full of guttering candles, lust and lace mantillas, angst and intrigue, beautifully acted and superbly told.

CAMILA (Unrated) -- In Spanish with English subtitles at the KB New Paris.