WHEN THE American Film Institute began its EU Film Showcase 18 years ago, the European Union had just expanded to 12 member states, the Berlin Wall was still intact and the AFI screened films at the Kennedy Center. For this year's showcase -- Tuesday through Nov. 22 at the AFI's three-year-old Silver Theatre in Silver Spring -- the programmers had to sort through films from the now 25 members of the EU.

Isn't this project getting a little, um, unwieldy?

Film programmer Todd Hitchcock, who curated the program, responds with a laugh. "It's a good problem to have!" he says. "We can handle it!

"It's a lot of fun to put the number on the board, to get the number of features that we have."

In addition to feature-length films, there is "Visions of Europe," a compilation of short films by directors from every country in the EU. Associate programmer Amy Dotson, explains: "Filmmakers were given five minutes to [create a short] about the future of Europe. It's a collection of first-time filmmakers, up-and-coming ones, as well as household names," including Bela Tarr (Hungary), Aki Kaurismaki (Finland), Peter Greenaway (United Kingdom) and Theo van Gogh, the controversial Dutch director whose slaying last November by a Muslim extremist sparked a fiery, racially charged debate among his countrymen.

For the past few years, the opening and closing films have been from the country that holds the presidency of the EU; this year it's Britain. Happily, Hitchcock says, "it just so happened that there are several interesting new British films."

The two he picked to bookend the festival -- Michael Winterbottom's "Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story" and Stephen Frears's "Mrs. Henderson Presents," starring Judi Dench -- made waves at previous film festivals, including Toronto's.

Those familiar with Laurence Sterne's mid-18th-century tome, "The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman," won't be surprised that Winterbottom's film is meandering and digressive. But it's also a comedy, which should be obvious to fans of British TV stars Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, who star in the film. As for his filming the "unfilmable," a nine-volume, 18th-century pseudo-memoir, it's all part and parcel of Winterbottom's wildly varied filmography, which includes the refugee docu-drama "In This World," sexually explicit "9 Songs," punk-rockumentary "24 Hour Party People" and war flick "Welcome to Sarajevo."

Hitchcock calls "Tristram Shandy," which is about the filming of an adaptation of the book, "absolutely hilarious," adding, "This is going to go down as one of [Winterbottom's] big movies. It's so inventive."

As for the musical comedy "Mrs. Henderson Presents," Dotson, who saw the film at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, says, "This is Judi Dench doing her best Judi Dench. She gets up there and is sassy and saucy. Plus, there's nudity!" (What Mrs. Henderson presented was an all-nude musical revue in World War II London.) Dotson calls it "a wonderful story told in period and in costume."

Several films on the showcase roster have been submitted by their home countries as possible contenders for the Academy Award for best foreign film, including Sweden's "Zozo," by Lebanese-born director Josef Fares, and Germany's "Sophie Scholl: The Last Days," director Marc Rothemund's drama about a resistance leader in Nazi Germany.

Other award-winning films in the showcase include Germany's "The Forest for the Trees," Italy's "The Consequences of Love" and "Come Into the Light," Dutch/Hungarian "El Perro Negro: Stories From the Spanish Civil War," Poland's "My Nikifor" and Spain's "Unconscious."

Films are at the AFI Silver Theatre (8633 Colesville Rd.), and tickets are $9.25. For more information, call 301-495-6720 or visit www.afi.com/silver.

-- Christina Talcott

Coming Attractions

Do you consider the trailers the best part of going to the movies? Or do you just want to whet your appetite for this fall's new movies? Monday at 7 at Landmark's E Street Cinema, the D.C. Film Society hosts "Coming Attractions -- Winter 2005." Catch previews from the Oscar-rush season; trailers may include "Rent," "Syriana," "Brokeback Mountain," "The Ringer," "The Libertine," "Chicken Little" and more. There will be games, giveaways and Hollywood chatter. ($8; 202-554-3263 or www.dcfilmsociety.org).

-- Christina Talcott

'Pickpocket' at AFI

In Robert Bresson's hypnotic "Pickpocket," his 1959 film based on Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment," a young man called Michel (Martin Lassalle) decides to pursue a life of stealing purses and wallets. Why he takes up this profession seems a mysterious blend of destiny and choice. But what really matters to the French director is the moral journey Michel is about to make. He becomes an eager apprentice, learning this criminal pursuit with determined, delicate earnestness and picking up tips from other professionals. He tries out his newfound skills, barely keeping ahead of the detectives who have begun to tag him.

In a scene that rivals Alfred Hitchcock's work for tension, Michel picks a target in a subway train, sidles up to him, then holds up a newspaper between them. Pretending to read, he works his fingers inside the man's jacket. The stranger, inches away from Michel's face, scrutinizes the pickpocket's face. The suspense is excruciating. And as with the films of Hitchcock, we find ourselves illicitly rooting for Michel's success.

Almost flirtatious with his pursuers, Michel continually asks them questions about crime and its consequences. "Can't there be thefts which can be forgiven?" he asks one inspector.

One thing's for certain, this is not a movie about picking pockets. Bresson's films are about the presence of God, but they are also about imprisonment as a metaphor for the soul. Michel is guilty of something more sinful than theft: a self-absorption that keeps him from the ones who love him most.

"You're not living in this world," a girlfriend tells him. "You're not interested in anything."

If this 75-minute, black-and-white movie interests you, and I hope it does, it screens at the American Film Institute's Silver Theatre through Tuesday. For tickets and more information, visit www.AFI.com/Silver or call 301-495-6720. Admission is $8.50.

-- Desson Thomson