September 26, 1988 12:00 PM

It would be naive to think that director Paul (Light of Day) Schrader and screenwriter Nicholas (Frances) Kazan have made a film to answer all questions about what turned publishing heiress Patricia Campbell Hearst into a bank-robbing terrorist named Tania back in 1974. The film is based on Hearst’s own 1982 book, Every Secret Thing. So there goes objectivity. But Schrader, no stranger to controversy as the screenwriter of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ, is nothing if not audacious. Avoiding the documentary approach, Schrader plugs the audience directly into Patty’s consciousness. We see things maybe not as they were but as Patty remembers them. The effect is electrifying. No sooner is Patty kidnapped from her Berkeley apartment by members of the “Symbionese Liberation Army”—middle-class, white urban guerrillas led by a black ex-con—than she’s blindfolded and tossed in a closet, where she spends the next 57 days. With the wizardly aid of cameraman Bojan (China Girl) Bazelli, Schrader shows us a convent-educated, 19-year-old girl being tortured and raped by shadow figures and then bombarded with inane political rhetoric. It’s nerve-shattering just to watch, and Schrader makes us share her anguish. His movie takes Patty’s case, but resists fully taking her side. Hearst remains a passive figure, susceptible to indoctrination whether it comes from her wealthy family or the SLA—both groups buffoonishly caricatured onscreen. Schrader’s success comes in showing Patty’s growing knowledge of herself as a victim, used by the political underground and by a press and public that wanted the rich kid’s blood. President Carter commuted Patty’s sentence in 1979, after she had served two years in jail for robbery. In the film, she eventually issues the f-word to all her exploiters. The real Patty (now married and the mother of two) objected to the script’s use of profanity, but not the passion behind it. What neither she nor the audience for this startling and original film could object to is the extraordinary performance of Natasha Richardson in the title role. The 25-year-old daughter of Vanessa Redgrave and director Tony Richardson is a shining new star. It’s not just that the British actress, who debuted last year in Gothic, has gotten the California-privileged look and accent down pat, she has caught the chilling rage behind Hearst’s bland facade. In so doing, she and the film will surely stir debate again on a case that even a decade later is still too baffling to close. (R)

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