The film next observes David as a dutiful and polite little boy (Alex Rafalowicz) who is filled with promise. He is the apple of his father's eye, admired by teachers and well on his way to a career as a brilliant pianist. What went so wrong?
Though ''Shine'' answers that question in somewhat facile ways, it has been so envelopingly directed by Scott Hicks, an Australian film maker with many television documentaries to his credit, that its emotional impact is powerful and real. Mr. Hicks's graceful exposition explores the pathos in David's relationship with his father, an overbearing parent made all the more wrenching by the true tenderness he feels for his boy. As played devastatingly by Armin Mueller-Stahl, Peter Helfgott is a study in anguished contradictions. The film watches helplessly while this father's love and pride destroy his son.
In light of this sad trajectory, perhaps the ultimate feel-good aspects of Mr. Hicks's film should come as a surprise. But ''Shine'' is the story of a real Australian pianist who has triumphed over his painful past, and it is happy to take its inspiration from the real man's amazing recovery. The film also takes comfort from the familiar, even fashionable truisms that it finds here: that genius brings suffering, that a child is a parent's passive victim, that adult life is chiefly the aftermath of early trauma. And that dysfunction, when rendered with enough quirkiness and color, exerts a fascination on screen.
Fortunately, Mr. Hicks's direction has an elegance and dignity that rescue ''Shine'' from the exploitative and give the film an acute, genuinely sensitive style. As written by Jan Sardi, ''Shine'' observes its central parent-child warfare so keenly that its resonance extends well beyond the Helfgotts' particular story.
Suffused with beautiful music, much of it performed on the soundtrack by the real Mr. Helfgott (David Hirschfelder's stirring score augments the impassioned classical selections), ''Shine'' presents the rigorous, rarefied atmosphere in which David grew up. His father, Peter, combines a passionate love for music and learning with a determination that David succeed at any cost.
Early in the film, the father is seen walking stiffly ahead of his son as they return from a piano competition; from this body language alone, David's sister can tell that her brother didn't win. In fact, he tried to play a Chopin Polonaise on a piano that kept rolling away from him, which is an apt image for David's plight.
Peter makes no secret of his disappointment when David fails. He also boasts about his own fortitude and teaches his boy that only the strong survive. The film traces Peter's outlook to his having lost much of his family in the Holocaust, but it also sees this sternness take a terrible toll on David. It's not long before the boy begins developing the nervous tics we have seen in the man.
Played especially well as an adolescent by Noah Taylor, David begins to strike out on his own. And Peter begins to crush him, especially after David has a chance to go study in America and a prospect of escaping parental rule. When he finally does make the break and goes to study in London (with John Gielgud as his teacher, and Googie Withers as the kindly mentor who has encouraged this progress), his father's fury still haunts him. Peter's insistence that David master the daunting Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor (known familiarly here as ''the Rach 3'') finally pushes David over the edge.
If ''Shine'' stages this crisis in ways