Picks and Pans Review: Goodbye, Children

updated 02/29/1988 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/29/1988 01:00AM

A 12-year-old boy (Gaspard Manesse) stands crestfallen at a train station near Paris. His adored mother is sending him back from his winter holiday to a Catholic boarding school in the provinces. In class he meets a new student (Raphaël Fejtö), smarter than he but reserved, secretive. Slowly, through the shared experience of daily routine, they become friends. There is a lovely hush to these early scenes in this loosely autobiographical film as writer-director Louis {Atlantic City) Malle masterfully stirs our memories of childhood and the exhilarating pull of first friendship. Within the protected walls of the school, the real world is held at bay. But only for a while. The time is 1944; the Nazis have occupied France; and a Judas on the premises soon makes known that the new student is a Jew, one of several the priest-headmaster is hiding. Feelings of responsibility, guilt, fear, anger, helplessness and inconsolable loss suddenly leave indelible marks on innocent, unlined faces. A boy must watch—as Malle did—his schoolmate being led off by the Gestapo to certain death. Malle relates this actual incident from his youth with elegiac sadness. The 55-year-old Frenchman, a U.S. resident for the past 10 years and married since 1981 to actress Candice Bergen, waited more than four decades to deal with what he terms "the most important event of my childhood." He was "unsure it wasn't sacrilegious" to reinvent a personal tragedy in dramatic terms. For that reason he has kept his storytelling wrenchingly simple. The result is powerful and haunting, a flat-out perfect film. The acting is of the highest quality ever achieved by children onscreen. Goodbye, Children is the official French entry in this year's Oscar race for Best Foreign Language Film. Malle clearly has the advantage: Language is no barrier to a film that possesses a direct line to the heart. (In French, with subtitles) (PG)

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