Neil LaBute’s Soft Spot: Love in the Afternoon

Neil LaBute’s Nurse Betty , from a screenplay by John C. Richards and James Flamberg, based on a story by Mr. Richards, shares a Pirandellian premise with Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), but the differences are more striking than the similarities. Whereas Mr. Allen invaded reality with the illusion of a movie to give Mia Farrow’s pitiful sparrow of a Depression heroine a temporary escape from her abusive husband, Nurse Betty allows Renée Zellweger’s Betty Sizemore to live out her delusions and still come out on top. Actually, the rollicking though dark mood of Nurse Betty is closer to The Wizard of Oz than anything else.

First of all, Betty starts off as a waitress in Fair Oaks, Kan., with an addiction to a popular TV daytime medical drama called A Reason to Love . Betty is infatuated with the character of Dr. David Ravell (Greg Kinnear) as if he were a brain surgeon in real life. And no wonder. Betty’s car-salesman husband Del (Aaron Eckhart) is thoughtless and unfaithful. Indeed, Del is the one character in the film who seems to belong in a Neil LaBute movie, and he doesn’t last long here. It seems that he has stolen drugs from the mob and must suffer the consequences.

From Detroit, two hit men are dispatched to retrieve the drugs and chastise Del for his betrayal. Charlie (Morgan Freeman) and Wesley (Chris Rock) are buoyant figures from the absurdist theater of Beckett, Pinter and Mamet. This unusual pair provides much of the humor in the film.

Having witnessed Del’s gruesome murder, Betty is so traumatized that she leaves town to find a new life in her Oz-Los Angeles. Charlie and Wesley are hot on her trail, but along the way Charlie becomes romantically obsessed with Betty’s picture, much to Wesley’s disgust. Meanwhile Betty’s relentless search for Dr. David Ravell leads her into several adventures culminating in her encounter with the actor who plays the doctor. He is with his woman producer, and both are impressed by what they interpret as Betty’s “improv” as Dr. Ravell’s long-lost sweetheart.

What happens next is more antic than melodramatic, but the actors hold the movie together, particularly Ms. Zellweger and Mr. Freeman, whose characters achieve a remarkable intimacy in a most unlikely situation. Mr. Rock is better than I have ever seen him in a feature film, while Mr. Kinnear is as reliable as ever.

Mr. LaBute has made a wise career move in taking on the essentially benign material from someone else’s script. After In the Company of Men (1997) and Your Friends & Neighbors (1998), he was in danger of being typed as a cold, heartless misogynist. As it is, George Cukor in his prime could not have done a better job of showcasing the dazzling talent of Ms. Zellweger, who has not been well served by her recent vehicles. It is not too early to be talking Oscar for this performance, though it is probably too warm, cheerful and optimistic for Academy tastes.

Two Religions, Three Languages, One Love

Paul Morrison’s Solomon and Gaenor , from his own screenplay, plays out as a harrowing and agonizing love story that makes Romeo and Juliet look like a walk in the park. Forget about the Montagues and the Capulets. Consider instead an Orthodox Jewish boy named Solomon (Ioan Gruffudd) and his love for a Welsh chapel-going Christian girl named Gaenor (Nia Roberts) in the tense social atmosphere of a depressed Welsh mining community in 1911. To make matters even more excruciatingly difficult, Solomon lies about his religious identity during the course of his courtship, by telling Gaenor and her family that he is an Englishman named Sam Livingstone.

When Gaenor realizes that she is pregnant, she confronts Solomon and demands to know why he is keeping her apart from his family. When he finally confesses his lie, they are reunited briefly. But at a crucial moment he is prevented from running off with her by his father, Isaac (David Horovitch).

Afterward Gaenor refuses to see him, which makes him more obsessed with her than ever. He endures repeated beatings by her brother Crad but persists in his pursuit. The degree of pain and privation he eventually endures to find her amounts to a martyrdom. The two families are separated by more than their conflicting faiths, and a small-scale, poverty-driven pogrom starkly foreshadows the tragic dimensions of the love story.

The anguish expressed in the film would be utterly unbearable were it not for the extraordinary performances of the two principals-and especially that of Ms. Roberts, who endows Gaenor with both innocence and impulsiveness, maidenly reticence and full-bodied womanly passion.

One might expect a sermon on tolerance and toleration or a diatribe against all sectarianism. But Mr. Morrison gives both families and both communities very nuanced qualities. Though the chapel expels Gaenor from the congregation, her family stands behind her, and her father Idris (William Thomas) actually wants Solomon to marry her. It is ultimately Solomon’s family that rejects the union, even though the Orthodox Jewish institutions seem more enlightened than the clergy of the chapel.

This is a film told in three languages-English, Welsh and Yiddish, with subtitles for Welsh and Yiddish. The two-tiered subtitles, I suppose, make this a particularly exotic foreign-language experience to recommend to my readers. It is in other ways a modestly budgeted undertaking, and yet also an ambitious piece of historical and sociological reconstruction. Among other things, it demonstrates how downtrodden miners with socialist sympathies can descend to anti-Semitic scapegoating when times are bad and, conversely, how Jews become understandably paranoid about gentiles.

A New Orfeu

Carlos Diegues’ Orfeu is based on a screenplay by Mr. Diegues, Hermano Vianna, Hamilton Vaz Pereira, Paulo Lins and João Emanuel Carneiro, derived from the 1956 play Orfeu da Conceição by Vincius de Moraes. The play also served as the source for Marcel Camus’ 1959 Black Orpheus ( Orfeu Negro ), which won both the Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or and the Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film. Indeed, Black Orpheus was a success everywhere around the world except in Brazil, where it was regarded as patronizing, condescending and inauthentic.

I doubt that Mr. Diegues’ Orfeu will enjoy the popularity of Mr. Camus’ Black Orpheus outside of Brazil. Back in 1959, I could not understand how Black Orpheus beat out Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour and Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows for Best Foreign-Language Film. Yet I remember being enchanted by Pittsburgh-born Marpessa Dawn as the film’s black Eurídice. I recall also Ms. Dawn and Breno Mello’s Orpheus dancing up a storm at Rio’s Mardi Gras.

But while I remember Black Orpheus for its Eurídice, Orfeu is completely dominated by Toni Garrido’s dreadlocked, peacockish Orpheu, with Patricía França’s pea-hennish Eurídice lacking not only Ms. Dawn’s beauty and charisma but-strangest of all- her blackness. What, then, is the point of this later “black” Orpheus? The original play was hailed for breaking a taboo by introducing black actors to the Rio stage. Possibly Mr. Diegues felt that his Eurídice didn’t have to be black to make his point about contemporary Rio being dominated in its slums by drug lords. The new Eurídice is referred to as “Indian,” thus representing another strand in Brazil’s racial tapestry, almost one-third of which is black.

The “realist” elements in the new Orfeu do not so much clash with the overall romanticism of the Orphic myth as bring it up to date in contrast to the stylized quaintness of the first Black Orpheus . An overbearingly possessive mother is added to the mix, thus bringing Freudian elements into play that were not in the first film.

By updating the material, however, Mr. Diegues and his co-scenarists have tended to divorce much of the spectacle from the narrative by showing it on television as it is watched from many different viewpoints. As for the music, the Brazilian samba seems to have been infiltrated by rock and rap. One youth proclaimed his devotion to Michael Jackson, in his way an avatar of racial inauthenticity.

Still, I was not bothered by signs of globalization in popular culture. The days of “pure” folk art may soon be over-if they are not so already. More bothersome is the aforementioned imbalance in the casting of Orpheu and Eurídice. The movie never recovers from it.

About ‘The Troubles’

Roger Michell’s Titanic Town , from a screenplay by Anne Devlin, based on the novel by Mary Costello, transports us to “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland almost 30 years ago. I say “transports ” advisedly because the film is shot almost entirely on an estate in Enfield, North London, though the action in Ms. Costello’s novel was set in the West Belfast suburb of Anderstown. Even today, extras masquerading as British troops and I.R.A. gunmen would cause panic and violence anywhere in Belfast.

Julie Walters plays Bernie McPhelimy, an Anderstown housewife who tries to make a difference when the civil war comes literally to her door. Her husband Aidan (Ciarán Hinds) gently advises her to mind her own business, but Bernie pays no heed to him or their four children and begins speaking out in public and on television for an end to all the violence.

She and her children are ostracized in their Catholic community because Bernie’s activities are perceived as treasonably anti-I.R.A. A brick is thrown through their window. Bernie is threatened in the street by masked I.R.A. gunmen. Still she persists, until her son is badly injured by an angry mob of neighbors. This true story ends anti-climactically, with the family in flight from an ancient, seemingly eternal battle of bigotries.

But it was also the beginning of something in the way of a distinctly womanly political movement that crossed sectarian lines to call for an end to the killing. At first there were only pitiful petitions. Eventually there were massive parades. Mothers no longer wanted sons to die bravely and foolishly for a cause. They wanted their sons to live in a country at peace. Throughout history, someone has had to take the first step. That was whimsically bumbling Bernie’s seemingly quixotic achievement.