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THE WORD is "haunting." If you write by the ream about films or music, you run the risk of using the word far too much about things that are merely memorable.

Atom Egoyan's "The Sweet Hereafter" is truly haunting. It was, I think, the most beautiful film of 1997. It's a somber film, but when it's over, it's not in the slightest bit depressing, a paradox that will be difficult, if not impossible, to imagine until you see the film. Its mood is absolutely unique. And all its immense sorrow and final uplift is conveyed with an enormous restraint that only makes it more haunting. There is none of what Milan Kundera once identified as the sentimentality and emotionalism that conceals heartlessness.

This, you realize when it's over, is a film about horrible loss that is almost entirely without bathos. And it ends with an affirmation that is tidally powerful because it isn't underscored.

To make it simple, it's a rare film, perhaps even a great one. It's different in kind from Egoyan's other works, too.

Egoyan based it on Russell Banks' novel. Banks has said that what his novel was about, symbolically, was "our culture's abandonment of its children."

The central event in the novel and film is the event that harrows this "tiny upscale New York town": a full school bus slides across a frozen lake and goes down through the ice, killing most of the children in it. For such a tiny town to lose 14 children at once is a spiritual cataclysm. This is an annihilation that lies beyond grief. And yet life has to go on.

The film, though, is about recovery -- specifically and, more deeply, the very nature of the process. The agent of it all is a lawyer who comes to town to try to represent someone -- anyone -- in a suit against someone, anyone. The lawyer is played by that remarkable actor Ian Holm, for which this may be the role of his professional life.

He's a man whose own spirit is strangled by loss; his own daughter is adrift somewhere -- he never knows where until she calls -- and dying of AIDS. He's much more, then, than a slick shyster who has gussied himself up as a saint. He's a man who, in his profession, has found a way to rage against his own loss.

As he cuts through the layers of the town, we find that it's dysfunctional in a way such towns always are in American fiction, whether the town is Fargo or Peyton Place or King's Row or Beverly Hills 90210. There are secret affairs going on everywhere, some comprehensible, some monstrous.

All of them burrow even further into the soul of the town, leaving a shell ready for imminent collapse.

Until, that is, one of the young victims of the town somehow manages to show everyone that a primal sense of community can even heal suffering like this.

Egoyan's visual images throughout the film are extraordinary. There are gorgeous snowscapes like something for a western and brilliantly cinematic sequences, like a man trying to have a crucial conversation on his cell phone in a car wash.

And what may seem to be the most literary conceit in the film -- the way Browning's "The Pied Piper of Hamelin" is used -- was actually Egoyan's creation, not Banks'.

Egoyan has a virtual stock company that goes with him from film to film, and they are all superb here: Maury Chaykin (who get his acting start in Buffalo working with experimentalist Joe Dunn); Sarah Polley; Bruce Greenwood (TV's "Nowhere Man"); Gabrielle Rose; Egoyan's wife, Arsinee Khanjian, and Alberta Watson (Madeline on TV's "La Femme Nikita").

But it is Holm's film, if it is any actor's, and it has already won him recognition he has always deserved but never before had. It's almost certain to win him more when Oscar nominations are announced.

It's one of the films that helped make 1997 a good year at the movies after all.

The Sweet Hereafter
Rating: ****
Much-acclaimed film by Atom Egoyan about a small town's triumph over tragedy. Starring Ian Holm, Bruce Greenwood and Alberta Watson. Written and directed by Egoyan. Rated R, playing at the North Park Theater.

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