Film Scouts Reviews

"The Neon Bible"

by Henri Béhar

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Chekhov, Mahler, Fellini, Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, Tennessee Williams, Norman Rockwell, Robert Bresson and Doris Day... quite a roster of (deliberate or involuntary) -- "godparents" for such a unique filmmaker as British director Terence Davies, whose works have always been indelibly autobiographical.

His first three medium-length films, THE TERENCE DAVIS TRILOGY, told about a Liverpool child brutalized by an alcoholic father, poverty, and a repressive Catholic church that condemned him for his homosexuality, leaving him miserable and crippled to his dying day. In his first feature, DISTANT VOICES, STILL LIVES, a new compassion and understanding allowed for hope, much of which was represented by music and film clips within the story. The next, THE LONG DAY CLOSES, emphasized the joy of family, intertwining weddings and other gatherings with film and music. No false nostalgia here, everything drives the emotional narrative forward.

With THE NEON BIBLE, Davies "moves out" of England for the first time and, inspired by John (CONFEDERACY OF THE DUNCES) Kennedy Toole's eponymous novel, "settles" in the 1940's Bible Belt -- the Deep South still marked by the Great Depression that young David (Jacob Tierney), turning his back on a loving but deranged mother and a brutal father, leaves in a strangely deserted train. And memories flood back. Memories of childhood and early adolescence (as in Fellini's AMARCORD). Memories of Aunt Mae (Gena Rowlands), a small-time singer down on her luck but full of optimism, who allows him to discover artifice, reality, femininity (8 1/2, Fellini again).

The film is slow but full of energy (the oxymoron is only apparent), as sinuously meandering as memory's yellow brick road, pregnant with what may (or may not) happen, but made even more real because it is sculpted by imagination. It is also fiercely fun and remarkably devoid of sentimentality. As Aunt Mae--bruised yet proud, determined yet vulnerable, a mentor as well as an accomplice--Gena Rowlands is in a class unto herself. And who knew she could (almost) outbelt Ethel Merman?

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