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'The Neon Bible' Sets Lyrical Tone

With glowing images and expressive acting, film director Terence Davies probes the intense perceptions of a youth

By David SterrittStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 14, 1996


The hero of ''The Neon Bible'' is a boy named David, growing up in a small Southern town during World War II. His life is shaped by the people around him - his unstable father, his lonely mother, an exotic aunt who comes to live with them - and by his own imagination, somehow more alert than the minds of people around him.

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As told by John Kennedy Toole in a novel he wrote as a teenager, David's story is modest and understated even when it erupts into strong emotion and violence. As retold in a new movie by Terence Davies, it pulses with the intense perceptions of a youth discovering how difficult and unpredictable life can be, even in an environment that tries to stave off complexity by fostering conventional habits.

Toole completed his small, sensitive novel - named after the advertising sign of a Southern preacher - in the mid-1950s, about 15 years before his death and some 30 years before his posthumous novel ''A Confederacy of Dunces'' won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981. Since he didn't publish ''Neon Bible,'' he probably thought it would never reach a wide readership.

Toole couldn't have dreamed it would become a movie with such impressive stars as Gena Rowlands and Diana Scarwid - or with a director like Davies, whose sensibilities are so similar to Toole's that the resemblance is almost uncanny. His earlier films include ''Distant Voices/Still Lives'' and ''The Long Day Closes,'' cinematic tone poems that focus on the same interests that fill Toole's novel: the challenge of coping with an irresponsible father, the joy of closeness to a nurturing woman, and the profoundly mixed experience of growing up gifted in a community that's frightened by qualities it doesn't understand.

''The Neon Bible'' is opening in American theaters almost a year after its early showings at the Cannes and New York film festivals, where reviews were mixed. While many critics have deep admiration for Davies, some say this movie's storytelling ambitions are less suited to his talents than the free-form autobiography of his other pictures. It's too early to tell whether audiences will be attracted by its glowing images and expressive acting, or put off by its leisurely pace and offbeat style.

What's certain is that the movie deserves careful viewing by anyone interested in the lyrical possibilities of cinema, which Davies has been courageously exploring for years.

Davies acknowledges that Toole's novel made a strong impression on him, triggering cinematic ideas almost immediately.

''I read it in a single sitting,'' he said after a Cannes screening, ''and I loved it. I've always said ... that if I see [a story] visually, I know where to put the camera; if I don't see it visually, then I don't know, and therefore I won't [film] it. The opening paragraph [of Toole's novel] tells you exactly where to put the camera, so I knew I could do this.''

His next major decision was to film the small, intimate story using a wide-screen CinemaScope format. ''While we were doing tests I was terrified,'' he recalls, ''because CinemaScope is as big as Canada and just as unpopulated! I thought, 'Suppose I make it really boring?' But there was something in the book that really touched me - it's ineffable, really - and I just knew the material was right.''