A childhood memory, told in maturity. French director Louis Malle waited 25 years to approach `Au Revoir les enfants'

It's common for filmmakers - especially European filmmakers - to create movies based on their own childhood memories. Some classic examples are ``The 400 Blows'' and ``Small Change,'' both by French director Franc,ois Truffaut, and ``Amarcord,'' by Italian director Federico Fellini. This longtime trend has continued recently with pictures like ``Hope and Glory'' and ``My Life as a Dog,'' among others. Now these popular films are getting strong competition from a new movie that recently premi`ered in France - reportedly to rave reviews - and opens today in the United States. It's called ``Au Revoir les enfants,'' translated as ``Goodbye, Children'' for English-speaking audiences. And it's one of the most powerful films ever made on the subject of childhood experience.

Part of the movie's impact comes from the knowledge that its writer and director, French filmmaker Louis Malle, actually lived through the basic events of the story. They made such a profound impression on him that he always knew he wanted to explore them through cinema. Unlike some directors, who make their first movies on events from their own pasts, he decided to wait until he had mastered his art. Only now, after more than 25 years' experience, has he delved into his memories to give us his most poignant and deeply personal film.

The story takes place in a French town during the mid-1940s. The main setting is a Roman Catholic school for boys, where the business of education goes on as usual despite World War II and the Nazi occupation. The school is a strict one, but there's a secret hidden behind its walls: A small number of its pupils are Jewish boys, in hiding (with false names) under the Germans' noses.

While the other children don't know about this, there's always a chance someone will find out accidentally. That's what happens to the main character, a young alter ego for Malle himself. He strikes up a close relationship with a new classmate, starts poking into his affairs, and stumbles on information revealing that his new friend is a Jew.

Being a very young boy in a very provincial school, he isn't quite sure what a Jew is. But he soon learns how dangerous it is to be one, and how his friend agonizes about the possibility of being found out. The story reaches its climax when the Nazis discover the school's secret and take swift action, leading to a simply filmed but extremely moving conclusion.

One of the most striking things about ``Au Revoir les enfants'' is how utterly unsentimental it is. Malle never goes overboard about the innocence or nobility of children; the young characters are seen as complicated human beings, with as many shortcomings as the grown-ups.

Similarly, the performances are skillful but never showy. Even the most vulnerable and heroic characters are played with straightforward realism. This restraint of acting and filmmaking results in a story that's all the more powerful. While many films try to force the audience into laughing and crying in the right places, ``Au Revoir les enfants'' invites us simply to watch, think, and feel according to our own perceptions. The result is touching in a way no manipulative film could equal.

Malle spent a large part of his career in the French film industry, where, as a member of the important New Wave movement, he crafted films as varied as ``The Lovers'' and ``Zazie,'' to name just a couple. For the past 10 years he has worked in the United States, making such fascinating films as ``Atlantic City'' and ``My Dinner With Andr'e.''

It's worth noting that Malle returned to France to make ``Au Revoir les enfants,'' as if only his native country would be the right place for him to explore his most painful long-ago memories. His new film is never painful to watch, however. It has a tragic theme, and it treats that theme with a singleminded commitment that's so deep it precludes the innovative turn of mind that has marked Malle's most provocative films. The result is a humane and compassionate movie that blazes no new trails for the filmmaker, yet stands proudly with his best work.

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