Cinema: Hard Rites Of Passage

A flock of European films depict childhood ordeals

Did European children ever have childhoods? Not in the '40s and '50s anyway, to judge from a bunch of recent movies. Death's shadow dogged a boy's heels; responsibility came early, and guilt tagged along. Kids grew up faster, tougher, with fewer fantasies and more urgent everyday nightmares. In wartime or in uneasy peace, childhood was no romp in the meadows of innocence; the evidence is on the screen. Two top contenders for this week's Oscar nominations focus on English boys growing up during World War II. In Steven Spielberg's Empire of the Sun, a lad gets shanghaied into maturity at the...

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