CINEMA PARADISO

PG, 1990, 121 minutes, HBO Video, $92.99.

There are films as lovely, but none lovelier than "Cinema Paradiso," a folkloric salute to the medium itself, flickering with yesterday's innocence and lingering on the mind like bubbles in wine. Born of writer-director Giuseppe Tornatore's childhood memories, this is a magic lantern in a Sicilian boy's hand, its warm light shed on the riches of life in a poor, stone-built land. Philippe Noiret, the sagacious French actor, plays the mentor, Alfredo, in this life story of Salvatore "Toto" Di Vito, a director manque' depicted as a child by Salvatore Cascio and as a grown-up by Jacques Perrin. Salvatore is returning to Giancaldo after an absence of 30 years when the recollections come upon him, an irresistible tumble of warm, funny, bittersweet vignettes as sly as one of Alfredo's winks. Toto is a silver fox these days, but his younger self is an olive-skinned little scamp with Clark Gable ears and great chocolate eyes that open wider than the screenful of miracles at the neighborhood Cinema Paradiso. The kindhearted, craggy Alfredo is its projectionist, the spinner of myth and the giver of a hard-won wisdom, full of Italian fatalism and rough fatherly love. Their story begins near the end of World War II when Toto's father is missing on the Russian front and Toto, Alfredo's apprentice, turns to the older man as a replacement. Over the 40 years spanned, the town, the boy, the movies all grow up together as the antics of Charlie Chaplin give way to the naked pout of Brigitte Bardot gives way to the VCR. "Cinema Paradiso" is cherished regret, inspired by what will never ever be again. -- Rita Kempley

THE ELVIS FILES

1990, 55 minutes, Media Home Entertainment, $19.95.

ELVIS STORIES

1990, 30 minutes, Rhino Video, $14.95.

With Elvis Presley earning more in death than he did at the peak of his career, it's apparent that he still holds a great fascination for a great many people. But did Elvis really "leave the building" forever? No, if you believe "The Elvis Files," a sort-of infomercial put together by several leading Elvis Is Alive advocates, notably Gail Brewer-Giorgio and Monte Nicholson, authors of books that were -- conspiratorially, they say -- kept out of America's bookstores (Brewer-Giorgio's was fiction, Nicholson's investigational). Both have spent years finding clues that support their position, previously presented in another book they collaborated on, also titled "The Elvis Files": disappearances of police photos and reports, incomplete toxicology and coroner's investigations, missing Graceland property, emptied checking accounts and cashed-in life insurance policies; expert handwriting analysis suggesting that Presley himself filled in his death certificate; tabloid sightings and lingering images on news photos; two audio recordings, including one of a rambling "Presley" speaking to Brewer-Giorgio in 1988. Most intriguing is a spooky image of "Presley" sitting behind a screen door at Graceland; it shows up on a color photo taken months after his "alleged" death and was discovered a decade later in the wake of numerous Presley sightings (the negative is authenticated by Kodak as untampered with). The doubters' conclusion: Presley is in the federal witness protection program as a result of undercover work done as an honorary federal agent (he reportedly had an agent working in his band in the mid-'70s). Draw your own conclusions.

While "The Elvis Files" is a documentary, "Elvis Stories" is a giddy celebration of Presleymania, though an unsuspecting viewer may have difficulty telling the two apart. In a series of sketches (all well-conceived, acted and filmed), we meet the tortured performance chef who creates edible Elvis-profile patties (soon glazed and framed by a wily entrepreneur); a hairdresser who is gradually possessed by the spirit of Elvis, no thanks to a therapist whose office is a Presley museum; the world's worst Elvis impersonator (he calls himself "an inspiritanator" because he looks nothing like Presley and pays no attention to the King's voice, look or fashion -- he's more into "nuance"); a fanatic quite convinced that Presley and John Lennon are the same person ("Eljohn, as his confidants call him -- you never seen them in the same place"); plus several unlikely sightings, including one in which Elvis, flying over a golf course in his jet, picks off an errant tee shot and drops it downcourse for a hole-in-one. Draw your own conclusions. -- Richard Harrington

THE STORY OF WOMEN

Unrated, 1988, 110 minutes, subtitled, New Yorker Video, $79.95.

Claude Chabrol's "Story of Women" stays rigorously within itself. It's a concentrated, disciplined, dry work about a woman in a small French village who, during the Occupation, begins to perform abortions, at first merely to help a friend, then later as a business venture. Marie (Isabelle Huppert) is a humorless, dourly practical woman who, while her husband is serving at the front, supports herself, her son and her daughter by taking in knitting. Her fate takes a drastic turn, though, when she discovers a neighbor trying to prompt a miscarriage by sitting in a mustard bath. Though she knows little about it, Marie disdainfully volunteers to help. Her name finds its way to other women, but it's not until she befriends a prostitute, who promises to send more customers her way, that she begins her business on a more serious basis. The performance Huppert gives is tough and unstinting. She makes absolutely no excuses for this woman. Marie is not an easy character to embrace; her misery is a daunting, aggressive, angry force. Nevertheless, Huppert forges in us an empathy for this woman, if by no other method than by entering so completely into her suffering. And Chabrol refuses to fudge the complexities of his subject or make facile moral distinctions. Despite its ambitious title, "Story of Women" does not expand to its full metaphorical height. It remains one woman's story, intelligent and efficient and moving. Not a spectacular work of imagination, but in its own stern fashion, a penetrating one. -- Hal Hinson

CHICAGO JOE AND THE SHOWGIRL

R, 1990, 105 minutes, closed-captioned, Live Home Video, $89.95.

So much depends on little things. If Joyce (Patsy Kensit), Lt. Ricky Allen's girlfriend, had agreed to sleep with him, he might not have had to survey the loose women of wartime London. And he might not have hooked up with Georgina Grayson, a small-time showgirl with dreams of Hollywood glory. And he might not have murdered two innocent people and become the only American to be tried in an English court during World War II and hanged by the neck until dead. See, it's all Joyce's fault. The movie here is "Chicago Joe and the Showgirl." Kiefer Sutherland is Ricky Allen, a k a Chicago Joe, but he's not really a lieutenant and he's never been to Chicago and his real name is something else. Chicago is an American private and a deserter when he meets Georgina (Emily Lloyd), who's actually a stripper. One thing is genuine about Georgina, though -- she's genuinely crazy. What "Chicago Joe and the Showgirl" turns out to be is a somber variation of "Bonnie and Clyde" or "Gun Crazy." But director Bernard Rose and screenwriter David Yallop seem to have left out both the psychological underpinnings of the killers and the kicky thrills they get from their crimes. Sutherland gives a charmless performance here, straining for both a star's casual glamour and overwrought Method posturing. On the other hand, Lloyd suggests that with another director she could have taken the character where it needed to go -- there's a scary amorality in her little girl's giggle. As a filmmaker, Rose is either squeamish or too tasteful, and neither is useful. -- Hal Hinson