WISEBLOOD -- At the Outer Circle 2.

"The religion of the South is a do-it-yourself religion, something which I, as a Catholic, find painful and touching and grimly comic," Flannery O'Connor was quoted as having said about her novel Wise Blood. "It's full of unconscious pride that lands them [its faithful] in all sorts of ridiculous religious predicaments. They have nothing to correct their practical heresies and so they work them out dramatically."

The film that John Houston has made from Wise Blood is painful and touching and grimly comic. The joke, which is nothing if not grim, is the absurdity of limited people who overstrain their spiritual capacities to the breaking point.

The centerpiece is a frighteningly fine performance by Brad Dourif of a young man tormented by the desire to escape the rigors of fundamentalist religion. He cannot. Believing, or proclaiming his nonbelief, following Christ or the anti-Christ -- it doesn't make any difference. His childhood was tortured by hellfire threats, and in his first attempt at adult freedom, after being released from the army, he tries proclaiming The Church Without Christ.

There is no escape. He again takes up the concept of self-punishment. He will never be blessed by the peace of indifference.

It's rare to see such a perfectly stylized movie. There's no attempt at explaining in realistic terms, or otherwise spoiling, the thick atmosphere of O'Connor's strange but internally consistent world of smalltown Southern fanatics. The characters are so tightly strung with the tension of trying to face God directly that they're nearly all in various stages of luncacy. So violent is this struggle of the soul that the only relief is in giving up the fight, the only comfort in accepting an uncomplicated amorality.

The dreadful and peculiar beauty of this story is not going to be to everyone's taste, but the restrained artistry with which the director and actors have translated O'Connor's literary vision into a film is amazing.