At first glance, "We the Living" might seem to appeal exclusively to movie buffs as a fascinating curio.

The 1942 Italian film, made with the consent of Italy's Facist government rule at the time, was adapted from Ayn Rand's first novel (without her knowledge or consent and in violation of copyright laws), a 1936 semi-autobiographical work reflecting Rand's feelings about living in post-revolutionary Soviet Russia.

The 4 1/2-hour black-and-white film was initially shown in two parts: first "We the Living," which opened to long lines; then two weeks later the second half opened in another theater as "Goodbye, Kira," also playing to sellout crowds.

Mussolini expected the film to simply be an obvious anti-Soviet tract, but it is, of course, an attack on totalitarianism in general. And when the dictator realized what the film really was, he banned it — after a successful four-month run.

But "We the Living" didn't disappear altogether, and some 20 years ago Rand herself initiated an effort to track it down. The result is this three-hour restored version (with English subtitles), which is actually more than just a curio. This is a fine, compelling film that in some ways resembles, of all films, "Doctor Zhivago."

Admittedly, "We the Living" has its limitations. As one critic pointed out, it's very much in the pompous style of the old MGM Hollywood melodramas, with obvious confetti substituted for snow, a bit too much fog covering up the cheap sets and absolutely no outdoor scenes actually shot outdoors. (There is also

the strangeness of hearing Russian characters saying "Buona sera" and "Arrividerci.")

What's more, director Goffredo Alessandrini had a penchant for silly transition shots that are obvious and redundant, and the lush musical score signals emotions so strongly it might provoke unintended chuckles here and there.

But Alessandrini also prompted stirring performances from his cast, in particular the three leads, Alida Valli, who went on to appear in such familiar films as "The Third Man" and Hithcock's "The Paradine Case"; Rossano Brazzi, best known for his later roles in "Three Coins in a Fountain" and "South Pacific"; and Fosco Giachetti, whose superb acting here places him a notch above his fine co-stars.

The story has 18-year-old Kira (Valli) arriving with her family in Petrograd in the early '20s, learning their home has been taken over by the state and that their freedom is quite limited.

A strong-willed individualist, Kira becomes involved with both Leo (Brazzi), an aristocrat's son on the run, and Andrei (Giachetti), a high-ranking member of the secret police.

The soap opera story has Andrei in love with Kira, who manipulates him in order to save her true love, Leo. The ploy is doomed to backfire, of course, and possibly destroy them all, and the plotting is predictable. But the story itself is less interesting than the rich characters, convincing dialogue (despite a tendency toward purple phrases) and certain individual scenes that quite remarkably maintain their impact after all these years.

"We the Living" is much more involving — even if you're not a film buff — than you might expect. It's also surprisingly frank for a 1942 film and would undoubtedly receive a PG for some profanity and implied sex, along with restrained depictions of violence.

-ERIKA HOLZER and her husband Mark were Ayn Rand's attorneys until Rand's death in 1982. In a telephone interview Wednesday from her New York home, Holzer said Rand herself preferred "We the Living" to the Hollywood adaptation of her later novel "The Fountainhead" — despite the fact that Rand herself wrote the screenplay for the latter, and that "We the Living" violated Rand's copyright.

"In the late '60s she told us about the film and we said, `Well, we've got to find it.' She said, `Good luck.' It took a couple of years, but then we found the original nitrate negative."

In this age of restoring movies ("Lawrence of Arabia" is still playing at the Salt Lake's Regency Theater), "We the Living" is undoubtedly one of the most remarkable examples, since it was censored by Nazi Germany and thought for some time to have been destroyed.

"We ran into all kinds of dead ends," Holzer said. "We went through World War II corporate records, bankruptcies — but what kept us in the game was the people we ran into who had seen it and still talked about it in hushed voices."

Eventually the film was discovered in Rome, still in its explosive nitrate negative state, and it was in such fine condition that the Holzers purchased it on the spot.

They then formed a partnership with a film producer and began looking at it to decide how to make it a viable commercial release. "We worked a little with her (Rand), and she indicated in broad strokes where to cut, but it wasn't the kind of editing to cut out things we didn't like. There was a subplot about two characters who went off to Siberia, but it wasn't very well done so we cut that out. And we slightly changed the ending."

A speech toward the end was also changed, redubbed in Italy to make the dialogue more directly as it was written in Rand's book, a decision the Holzers made after Rand's death. Erika Holzer also co-wrote the subtitles.

Comment on this story

The film has played in about 75 American cities to great success, as well as in Australia, where it opened to even better reviews. It's also been sold to Canada, Great Britain and Israel, the first non-English speaking country so far. Major European markets are the next target.

As for the film's stars, Alida Valli, who will be 68 next month, is still a big star in Italy, where she continues to perform in plays and movies, and Rosanno Brazzi recently told Holzer he considers "We the Living" one of his two or three best films.