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`AT PLAY IN THE FIELDS' LAUGHABLE IN WRONG PLACES

Suffering from having no real point of view, as well as an overzealous desire to show the white man (and woman) as a diseased band of self-righteous hypocrites, "At Play in the Fields of the Lord" is a three-hour treatise on letting well enough alone.

But the film itself is hypocritical, with an insincerity that makes it laughable in all the wrong places and intolerably dull in others.Despite this, it must be said that the germ of an interesting idea exists, that cultural influences might be better served if "the white man" didn't force his more "civilized" views on them. Too bad it's already been covered by a better, shorter movie - "Black Robe."

But instead of French Canada in the past, "At Play" has us in the modern Amazon jungle. Christian missionaries are the villains here, led by over-the-top John Lithgow and his demure wife, Daryl Hannah. (When we meet Lithgow, climbing stairs with provisions, he is confronted by a lowlife drunk [Tom WaitsT. Lithgow, sounding for all the world like Billy Graham at the pulpit, sputters, "You, sir, are a blasphemer and a fornicator." Thus, we are immediately informed that we're in very broad movie territory.)

The film opens with the arrival of Waits and his partner, a half-Cheyenne Indian played by Tom Berenger, in a small plane. Their papers are confiscated, and they strike up a deal with the local police official. If they bomb a small Indian village deep in the jungle, they will be free to go.

Meanwhile, Lithgow and Hannah prepare for the arrival of the newest missionary recruits, earnest and sincere Aidan Quinn, overbearing wife Kathy Bates (who is even more self-righteous than Lithgow) and their charming young son.

At times the film seems to take on Quinn's point of view, and it might have been logical to see the action from his eyes, as the newcomer with an open mind toward the unique lifestyles he will encounter.

But director Hector Babenco ("Kiss of the Spider Woman") can't seem to decide whether his protagonist is Quinn or Berenger, who, early in the film, gets high, flies over the Indian village he's supposed to bomb and instead parachutes into their midst. They reluctantly welcome him as a god, and he conforms to their lifestyle and lives among them.

Naturally, Berenger and Lithgow are destined to butt heads, with Quinn in the middle - but not without a lot of thick plotting first. (And, of course, Berenger will bring tragedy to the people he has come to love.)

Particularly ridiculous moments include Bates losing her mind and doing a native dance, nude under a thatch of leaves and layers of mud; shy Hannah taking an unlikely nude swim and being confronted by Berenger, who, at this moment, seems to represent the devil himself; and late in the film, Lithgow's cowardice being revealed as he wards off the "savages" he has been trying to convert.

Though the Catholic Church is frequently referred to disparagingly by Lithgow as "the opposition," the only really sympathetic character in the film (aside from the ill-fated Indian tribe) is the Catholic priest, shown to be a much more tolerant and humane person than any of the protestant missionaries whose zeal outweighs their compassion - or even common sense.

In the end, "At Play in the Fields of the Lord" is notable mainly for gorgeous cinematography shot on location in South America and for extensive re-creations of the native rituals of the Indians.

And that's hardly enough to sustain three hours of film.

"At Play in the Fields of the Lord" is rated R for considerable male and female nudity, violence, profanity and vulgarity.