LONGTIME ADHERENTS of the Telluride Film Festival will tell you there is something about the rarefied mountain air and intimate screening venues that makes seeing films here a special experience. Perhaps this has never been so evident as this year, when the heady atmosphere and intense concentration of viewing across four days allowed even the almost unalloyed grimness of the films to be strangely exhilarating.

With only a few exceptions, the otherwise varied international works on display comprised a depressing survey of recent history. Unquestionably leading the field in the self-loathing department are the British, who seem incapable of making a film that does not somehow reflect their nation’s declineand fall into economic chaos and spiritual malaise.

In Telluride alone, there was Ken Loach’s mordantly funny look at desperation born of poverty, “Raining Stones”; Mike Leigh’s critique of the ruins of Thatcherism, “Naked”; Mark Kidel’s consideration of melancholia, “Kind of Blue”; Derek Jarman’s conceptual report on his worsening condition with AIDS, “Blue,” which consists of 76 minutes of a blue screen with the director speaking on the soundtrack; and Molly Dineen’s four-hour BBC documentary “The Ark,” which uses the deterioration of the London Zoo as a metaphor for the decline of Britain.

Two new, very interesting American independents on view, Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s “Suture” and Lodge Kerrigan’s “Clean, Shaven,” deal intensely and violently with amnesia and schizophrenia, respectively, and are not what you would call uplifting experiences.

Circling the globe, it was much the same story. Knut Erik Jensen’s new Norwegian film, “Stella Polaris,” recounts the physical and emotional repercussions of the Nazis’ scorched-earth policy in the country. And the films of Swedish documentarian Stefan Jarl, who was honored along with his mentor Arne Sucksdorff, attack the cultural and ecological devastation wrought by man over the years.

Chen Kaige’s “Farewell My Concubine” and Wayne Wang’s “The Joy Luck Club” hardly lightened the mood either.

THE FESTIVAL’S BIGGEST conversation piece, John N. Smith’s “The Boys of St. Vincent,” probes into the disturbing subject of Catholic Brothers’ molestation of young boys in an orphanage. Bertrand Tavernier’s “L.627” chronicles the frustrations of French cops who try to curb the scourge of drugs.

Even two relatively less downbeat films, Krysztof Kieslowski’s “Three Colors: Blue” and Wim Wenders’ “Faraway, So Close,” convey an inherent skepticism about the potential for a unified Europe to solve any fundamental problems.

And the revivals and archival discoveries were almost invariably bleak. Wanda Jakubowska’s 1948 Polish drama “The Last Stop,” which should be rescued from oblivion by some enterprising distributor, was filmed on location in Auschwitz.

Stanley Kubrick’s first film, the 1953 “Fear and Desire,” which will definitely not reenter the repertory, is a sophomoric study of men in war that nonetheless anticipates his “Full Metal Jacket” in its preoccupation with the futility of human endeavor.

The work of the great film noir cinematographer John Alton, who received a major tribute, could not have been more brilliantly dark and, as he pointed out, the clips excerpted from his films were filled with murders (Telluride audiences got a big treat with an ultra-rare screening of the amazing final reel of Alton’s 3-D noir, “I, the Jury”).

With all this hopelessness on parade, it had to be more than mountain air and friendly environs that made it all palatable. What this festival illuminated is that artistic precision and intellectual rigor can transcend thematic bleakness and pessimism.

Perhaps this should be obvious, given the preponderance of great works of art that express dark views of the world, but it’s something that is very often forgotten in Hollywood.

What provided the exhilaration was the passionate personal commitment of the filmmakers themselves, nearly all of whom were on hand to accompany and comment upon their work. For these and other directors like them, making films is not a job, but an unavoidable mission, a necessity of life. In turn, the films express , with varying degrees of eloquence, their true feelings about the state of the world as the millennium rushes toward us. If the truth can be heard, then there might be hope.

TWO PARTICIPANTS in this year’s festival were directors Bertrand Tavernier and John Boorman. Among their many other activities during the weekend, they signed copies of the splendid books each edited in turn, “Projections: A Forum for Film Makers,” volumes one and two. Published annually by Faber & Faber, these tomes collect excellent articles by and about filmmakers, and each contains a fascinating yearlong diary by its editor.

Tavernier’s memoir is characteristically enthusiastic and critically perceptive, recounting the making and release of two of his films as well as his travels and viewing.

Boorman’s diary details a frustrating year of waiting to hear about projects, and also contains terrific insights into films and other directors. Here’s one anecdote that stands out.

Boorman visited an ailing David Lean. The two men brooded about their respective careers, but just as Lean was leaving for the hospital, “He looked up at me and said, ‘Haven’t we been lucky? They let us make movies.’ I said, ‘They tried to stop us.’ His face lit up with a boyish grin. ‘Yes, but we fooled them.’ “

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