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At the movies

Two tales from Ireland, and Brazil to boot


Ireland is increasingly fashionable as both a source of story and a place to make movies. Two recent openings demonstrate contrasting use of its possibilities.

Waking Ned Devine (Fox Searchlight Pictures) bids for broad popularity by taking the easy way, seeing Irish villagers as happy-go-lucky rogues. English writer-director Kirk Jones has a good comic starting point: Two charming codgers, Jackie O’Shea (Ian Bannen) and sidekick Michael O’Sullivan (David Kelly), learn that one of Tulaigh Mohr’s inhabitants has won the lottery, but they don’t know who holds the ticket. Hoping to make friends with the winner, they try various ruses to determine if anyone has sudden plans to spend money. They even provide a chicken dinner for all the inhabitants of the village. When one of the guests fails to show up, they discover that the lucky person is none other than the just-deceased Ned Devine!

Bannen and O’Sullivan milk their roles for easy laughs, and Fionnula Flanagan is even better as O’Shea’s levelheaded wife, but the underlying assumption that Irish villagers are quaintly lovable gets rather wearying. The director was obviously hoping to repeat last year’s success, “The Full Monty,” but showing a naked O’Sullivan riding a motorcycle seems forced rather than hilarious.

Other gags, however, work. We are charmed when a young boy assures the insecure young curate that the villagers need time to accept anyone, and Ned Devine’s funeral service, climaxed by O’Shea’s eulogy, is a hilarious tribute to his friendship -- for O’Sullivan.

The most likable aspect of the proceedings is that the villagers are genial, not greedy. Only one mean lady rejects O’Shea’s scheme to divide the almost 7-million-pound lottery prize into 51 equal shares, and she is summarily disposed of. Unfortunately, her fate will seem funny only to 8-year-olds and suggests that “Ned Devine” will be more enjoyable for those who aren’t Irish.

I had expected to be disappointed in the movie of Dancing at Lughnasa (Sony Pictures Classics). How could it live up to Brian Friel’s haunting play? Fortunately, Pat O’Connor, blessed with Meryl Streep and four other fine actresses as the unmarried Mundy sisters, conveys the sweet sadness of their restricted lives, an authentically Irish story that still manages to recall Chekhov’s Three Sisters.

Although the screenplay of Frank McGuinness eliminates a few monologues, it wisely resists any temptation to change Friel’s gentle, elegiac tone. The opening establishes a framework of memory: Michael looks back on the summer of 1936, when he was 8 and living in a small cottage in Donegal with his unmarried mother, Christina (Catherine McCormack), and four loving aunts. They are waiting for Father Jack (Michael Gambon), the sisters’ much-admired brother who has been a missionary in Africa for many years. Their world is about to change forever.

Meryl Streep is Kate, a schoolteacher, the oldest of the Mundy sisters. The bossiest and most repressed, she holds herself responsible for keeping the family solvent and respectable. Rose (Sophie Thompson), a bit simpleminded, is in love with a nearby farmer whose wife has left him. Kind, hardworking Agnes (Brid Brennan -- who won a Tony in this part on Broadway) tries to look out for her. Maggie (Kathy Burke), down-to-earth and a smoker, is the only one who occasionally challenges Kate.

The movie has a gentler atmosphere than the play, softening its sense of hopelessness. Extending the action beyond the latter’s cottage set, it explores the beauty of the surrounding countryside, the sisters’ unending round of chores, the men working on their farms or cutting turf for fuel.

When the sisters go to town to meet Father Jack’s bus, the priest who emerges is a sweetly confused old man, dazed by his recollections of African ritual, unable to fit into the respectable routines of an Irish village parish. When he learns that Michael is Christina’s “love child,” he delightedly suggests that the other sisters should follow her example.

The arrival by motorcycle of Gerry Evans (Rhys Ifans), Michael’s father, is a further intrusion on cottage routine. He and Christina dance sweetly together, and the camera takes in the other sisters watching them. Kate insists Gerry can’t stay in the house, but Christina visits him at night in the barn. Attractive, irresponsible and naive, Gerry feels he must fight for democracy in Spain. Although sincere in his tentative efforts to make friends with his son, even promising to buy him a bike, it is clear he will never return.

Father Jack’s praise of African community and openness to nature is thematically linked with the neighborhood’s preparations for the celebration of Lughnasa, a midsummer festival surviving from pagan times. Except for Kate, the sisters reveal a suppressed love of dancing, and it finally explodes in a lovely burst of energy that brings them together for a triumphal moment.

But there is no future for these women: the village priest, scandalized by Father Jack’s breakdown, coldly dismisses Kate from her teaching, and the opening of a nearby factory means that the others can no longer earn money at home by their knitting.

A way of life has gone forever, but “Dancing at Lughnasa” is a celebration you shouldn’t miss.

If Central Station (Sony Pictures Classics) has more exotic scenery, it has the same rich humanity. An unwanted journey from the chaotic railroad station in Rio de Janeiro to Brazil’s beautiful but impoverished back country brings Dora (Fernanda Montenegro), a cynical middle-aged professional letter-writer, to discover her own emotional deprivation and capacity for compassion.

Without Montenegro, some of the film’s narrative shifts could seem melodramatic. Josue’s mother had come to Dora at the start of the movie to write an appeal to her husband, Jesus, from whom she is separated. When Josue is killed in a bus accident, Dora hopes Josue will disappear, but with no place to go he simply hangs around the station. She finally takes the boy home, where he discovers the unmailed letter to his father, callously discarded in a bureau drawer.

The next day Dora brings him to a crooked adoption agency and signs him away for money. When a close friend learns where Dora got the money to buy a new TV set, she is outraged and speaks of sinister possibilities in such “adoptions.” Dora steals Josue back from the agency; then, realizing she has made dangerous enemies, she reluctantly sets off with the boy to look for his father.

On an endless bus trip, she dismisses the boy in a fit of frustration before desperately searching for him among a crowd of religious pilgrims. Montenegro’s performance is memorable, preserving a gruff earthiness while shifting smoothly through a series of emotional changes. In her first scenes with the boy she is callous and indifferent; when an evangelical truck driver gives them a ride, she becomes younger and shyly flirtatious; by the time she and Josue reach his father’s house, she projects stoic acceptance and generosity.

As for Josue, director Walter Salles Jr. found him when the boy was panhandling at an airport. Handsome, stubborn and suspicious, his resiliency outshines his years of disappointment.

“Central Station” is a fine movie about human renewal that shows respect for its characters and avoids sentimentality. Although realism makes a Hollywood-style resolution impossible, its deeply affirmative spirit helped “Central Station” win first prize at this year’s Berlin Film Festival. Dora and Josue learn from each other and will long remember their trip together, and at the end the boy is no longer alone.

Joseph Cunneen was editor of Cross Currents, an inter-religious quarterly, for 48 years.

National Catholic Reporter, December 18, 1998