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.
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.''
This sense of rightness may have stemmed from a fascination with the mysteries of childhood that Davies and Toole share with the main character of the story.
''I responded to that child because he's experiencing the world,'' Davies says with an edge of passion in his voice. ''Children experience the world with such power! Images burn into you like acid, and you never, never forget them. I wanted to show that paradise can be lost, and yet you still can actually enjoy it while it's there.''
Another reason for Davies's attraction to this project was the chance to work with American performers for the first time. ''I looked forward to that very much,'' the British filmmaker says, ''because I think their tradition is thrilling.''
His stars returned the compliment by turning in first-rate performances. ''Terence has a more formal style than I'm used to,'' said Rowlands in Cannes, ''and he has a real dedication to the written word. But he is the most emotional director I've encountered. When he likes something you do, he jumps off his seat and starts laughing and dancing happily around. When he doesn't like something, he sits and stares at the ground for a while. There's something about a person so emotionally unguarded that makes him easy to work for.''
Davies readily admits that his saturated mixtures of images and sounds are unusual in today's movie world, but he backs away from trying to explain his methods. ''I don't know where the style comes from,'' he says with a trace of bemusement. ''I only know that's how I see it, that's how I hear it, that's how I frame it. It's an instinctive thing.''
Pursuing this theme, he traces some elements of his approach to religious imagery he saw as a child in England, imagery marked by a great deal of symmetry.
Other elements may have come from another childhood preoccupation. ''I was constantly looking in and out of doors,'' he recalls, ''looking from my house - which I loved - into the outside world, and then looking from the outside into my house. That still has tremendous power for me - that you see sunlight outside and dark shadows inside, with details in them. That thrills me more than I can say, just as it thrills me when a child reaches out and tries to touch the moon. I've seen children do it. I've tried to do it.''
Not every influence on Davies comes from childhood, of course. He is moved by greatness in both classical and popular music - he speaks of Dmitri Shostakovich and Doris Day with equal rapture - and by favorite works of literature and the stage. Asked about his fondness for Anton Chekhov, he replies that the Russian dramatist ''invented the subtext - where what is not said is just as important as what is said.'' This points to the importance of nuance, suggestion, and even silence in Davies's films. As often happens, he illustrates this point with a memory from long ago.
''I remember sitting on the stairs in my house on a Saturday,'' he says, ''waiting for the others to come in. I remembered all the conversations I'd heard there ... and [suddenly] the house was alive with memory. I like the idea of juxtaposing empty corridors and rooms with memories of the people who used to be in them. We invest houses and buildings with our memories. And those memories are so powerful.''
So, for a growing number of moviegoers, are Davies's films.