"ELENI," a modern Greek tragedy based on the best-seller by Nicholas Gage, fails almost as heartily as it succeeds. Its Achilles heel is a dual plot line, a chronicle of the New York reporter's return to his native Greece to investigate his mother's death entwined with her story set 32 years before.

John Malkovich, the blind boarder of "Places in the Heart," tries his first starring role here as Gage, a dour, dispirited writer whose life is contorted by his quest for revenge. And Kate Nelligan has the title role as Gage's mother in the past-time storyline, set in the hillside village of Lia, "liberated" by Communists during the Greek civil war.

Nelligan is the very essence of maternalism in an epic performance, suffused with care and grace. And while she and her family fend off hunger and propaganda and terror in time past, the movie is inspirational, painful and real.

"In the sunshine of my life, I lived in the shade, I didn't complain . . . I am saying: No more," she says. "They took my home, my food, my dignity. But not my children." And her words resonate, as if a saint were there.

In 1948, when Gage is nine years old, the Communist partisans announce that the village children must starve or be sent to neighboring Iron Curtain countries. Courageous Eleni smuggles Gage and three of his sisters out of the country, but is found out, arrested, tortured and executed.

It's a tough drama. But we're attracted by Nelligan's spell, her fierce Mediterranean eyes, her mother's ferocity. Whenever we get caught up in this story, though, the film shifts to the present again and Gage's morose search for his mother's killer.

Journalists' tools just aren't as interesting. But the screenplay divides its time evenly between Eleni and Gage, with Malkovich in a performance without conviction or strength. His revenge is such weak tea in the face of mythic maternalism and the atrocities of war.

It ought to be Eleni's memorial. But since Gage coproduced, he certainly wasn't going to write himself out of his story. Peter Yates of "The Dresser" directs somewhat haphazardly, and Peter Tesich, who wrote "Breaking Away," wrote the bi-screenplay, a frequently eloquent one with dialogue from Gage's actual interviews and his mother's last words.