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THE SECRET OF ROAN INISH - * * * * - Jeni Courtney, Eileen Colgan, Mick Lally, Richard Sheridan, John Lynch; written, directed and edited by John Sayles; rated PG (mild violence); exclusively at the Tower Theater.

A lovely, lyrical and intelligent Irish fable, "The Secret of Roan Inish" is the best "family movie" to come along in some time - even if the only place you can see it is the local cinema art house, the Tower Theater.

Adapted (from Rosalie K. Fry's 1957 novella, "The Secret of Ron Mor Skerry") by American filmmaker John Sayles, the story is built around the legend of "Sel-kies," which in Irish mythology are half-human/half-seal creatures.

The setting is a small Irish village just after World War II, and the central character is a 10-year-old girl named Fiona (Jeni Court-ney) who is sent to live with her grandparents (Mick Lally, Eileen Colgan).

At night, gazing out her window, Fiona becomes fascinated with the distant island called Roan Inish, and from her grandfather - and later a "touched" cousin named Tadhg Conneelly (John Lynch) - she begins to learn the story of her parents.

As this fable is told delicately and beautifully in a series of flashbacks, I don't want to give too much away - but suffice it to say that Fiona discovers that she has a long-lost brother named Jamie, who apparently was pulled out to sea in his cradle by Selkies.

Fiona decides to search for Jamie on Roan Inish and soon finds a number of clues that he may indeed be in the vicinity. Her grandparents are, naturally, rather skeptical - but eventually, they all discover the truth of this apparent "myth."

Sayles is a wonderful storyteller, and many of his low-budget, independent films - "Return of the Secaucus Seven," "Matewan," "Passion Fish," "The Brother From Another Planet," "Eight Men Out" and "City of Hope" - are filled with humor and wit, universal themes and realistic plotting, and despite some occasional dark subjects, heart and hope. He has a great ear for dialogue and a marvelous sense of how to cast his movies, and many of them have hardly a false note.

Gorgeously photographed by Oscar-winner Haskell Wexler ("Bound for Glory," "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," "Mate-wan") and perfectly acted by a terrific cast, "The Secret of Roan Inish" is filled with nuance and detail that tells us much about Ireland and its people, their roots and beliefs, and - of course - the great Irish tradition of oral story-telling.

Sayles and this material make a perfect match, and the film is utterly captivating from start to finish.

"The Secret of Roan Inish," rated PG for some mild violence, is quite simply one of Sayles' best movies. And that in itself is no small compliment.