A New York state court yesterday upheld the X rating of Pedro Almodovar's "Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!" but lambasted the rating system, calling it "an effective form of censorship" that might nonetheless allow children to be exposed to harmful depictions of extreme violence.

The trial court "strongly advised" the Motion Picture Association of America to consider revising its rating system or to abandon it. "Having voluntarily taken on this responsibility, there may well be the obligation to competently address the task," said Judge Charles E. Ramos in a 15-page opinion.

While the court's scolding has no direct consequences for the MPAA, it will fuel an ongoing debate over the merits of its 22-year-old rating system. The court suggested that the MPAA might need to create another rating for adult films that are not pornographic. "The MPAA, having acquiesced in the use of the X rating by the pornography industry, may well have some affirmative responsibility to avoid stigmatizing films with an X rating," he said.

Ramos noted that the case appears to be the first in which a court has been asked to "address issues previously dealt with by film critics and the motion picture industry regarding the fairness and methodology of ratings given films by the dominant rating organization in this country."

Miramax Films, which filed the challenge to the rating, said it may appeal. Miramax executive Russell Schwartz called the ruling "a Pyrrhic victory" although he said he was pleased with the judge's attack. "It wasn't exactly what we wanted, but it was something," he said.

The MPAA's Jack Valenti said in a statement that he is "quite pleased" with the ruling, adding, "This was never a serious case." But he said that "just about everything the opinion had to say about the system ... is wrong, and if the mandate of the opinion were to be implemented, it would be a prescription for censorship."

The MPAA contends that self-policing helps the industry avoid censorship. It also maintains that the rating system is intended simply to help parents judge which films their children may see.

But Ramos ruled that the system does not reflect the MPAA's purported concern for children. "The {rating} standard is not scientific," he said. "There are no physicians, child psychiatrists or child care professionals on the board, nor is any professional guidance sought to advise the board members regarding any harm to minor children. No effort is made to professionally advise the board members on the impact of a depiction of violent rape on the one hand and an act of love on the other, nor is any distinction made between levels of violence."

Ramos, citing a December 1988 MPAA memo, said the association had apparently engaged in an "indefensible" effort to encourage lenience toward violence. The system may be "skewed towards permitting film makers huge profits pandering to the appetite for films containing 'hard violence' and 'drug use' while neglecting the welfare of children intended to be protected by the system," he said.

"Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!," a film that depicts a kidnapping and sexual bondage, was unanimously rated X by a seven-member MPAA board that cited two sexually explicit scenes as reasons for its appraisal. In April, an appeal resulted in a 6-6 split, which had the effect of upholding the X. A two-thirds majority is needed to overturn a rating on appeal. Miramax sued on May 23, asking the court to give the film an R rating or overturn the system as arbitrary and capricious.

Ramos said he would not award the film an R, explaining: "This Court will not dignify the present system by rendering an opinion on so frivolous a standard" as that applied by the MPAA. He said he could not overturn the system on grounds of arbitrariness because Miramax provided no evidence of "clear and intentional discrimination" or bad faith on the MPAA's part. He questioned Miramax's motives in bringing the case, suggesting that "this proceeding may be just publicity" for the film.

Miramax is currently appealing an X rating on another film, "Hardware," a futuristic thriller set for an Aug. 31 release. Ironically, the film's violence was the apparent basis for that rating.

Despite his ruling, the judge said if a group of filmmakers could show that the system discriminated against them and that an economic motive was involved, "there may well prove to be a basis for relief."

The MPAA rating system is voluntary but virtually every popular film screened in this country is submitted to the process. Most major studios are not in favor of revising the system because they want to avoid being perceived as purveyors of pornography and because the rating system effectively precludes directors from creating work that might prove excessively offensive to mass audiences. Most directors are contractually bound to come up with a film that is at most R-rated. The major studios will not release X-rated material.

Staff writer Hal Hinson contributed to this report.