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Neon Bible, The

Terence Davies

After the semi-autobiographical Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes, the gifted British writer-director Terence Davies turns to America and a novel by John Kennedy Toole. Written when the author was just 17, The Neon Bible tells of a boy growing up on the edge of a small town in bible belt America of the 1940s, with a mother who loses her mind when father is killed in the war, and an aunt whose vitality tempers the sense of tragedy hovering over the household. This material lends itself to variations on the themes common to Davies’ earlier films (the brutalising influence of a tyrannical father, which is counteracted by the supportive role of females in a young boy’s upbringing; the suffocating effects of religion compared with the positive power of popular music), and the director explores these in the poetic style that has become his trademark. Davies’ films are heavily influenced by American popular culture, including the movies, but this has nothing to do with classic Hollywood narrative cinema or current post-modernist fads. In The Neon Bible, the American cultural influences are filtered through a European art movie tradition as developed by Davies’ highly personal, contemplative approach, with its elegant tracking shots, studied compositions and theatrical performances. Yet Davies has spoken of America giving him ‘a wonderful sense of freedom’, and this finds expression in The Neon Bible’s expansive wide-screen photography and in Gena Rowland’s wonderful performance as the resilient Aunt May.

U.K., 1995.
91 mins.

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