Live Through This

Cut short: Eamonn Owens and Stephen Rea in Neil Jordan's The Butcher Boy

The Butcher Boy
Uptown Theatre, starts Friday

The Truce
Lagoon Cinema, starts Friday

Pop journalism and the self-esteem fad have made "survivors" commonplace. A self-indulgent entertainer, congressman, defrocked CEO, or former Boy Scout wrecks a few kids and a marriage or two, gets off the sauce (or sex, pills, junk bonds, whatever), and comes back contritely as a "survivor." This of course debases the idea of genuine survival, which is to live through something beyond the survivor's control, something so awful that it can only be retold as satire or straight history.

Starring in his own black comedy, the title character of Neil Jordan's The Butcher Boy has been dealt a seriously bad lot: Around or within him lie suicide, murder, spousal abuse, drunkenness, priestly kinks, imprisonment, and an untended corpse. This red-haired preadolescent by the name of Frankie Brady is a bully-bomb that's ready to drop. His father (Stephen Rea) drinks, his mother isn't always on the right page, and he has his own problems reconciling Irish Catholic dogma, American sci-fi monsters, and early-'60s communist A-bomb threats. A story such as this can become either a cautionary drama of self-improvement or a harsh assault on life itself.

Guess which approach the director of Mona Lisa and The Crying Game takes. Spinning off from Patrick McCabe's novel, Jordan sees the careening Frankie (Eamonn Owens) as a tornado and his surroundings as an infrastructure that might deserve destruction. Frankie sees his chief problem as Mrs. Nugent (Fiona Shaw), mother of his classmate Philip and a woman who has picked up some snooty ideas from England. She's primarily a foolish lady with a wuss for a kid, but when Frankie's pal Joe (Alan Boyle) takes up with Philip instead, Frankie begins to plot a grotesque revenge.

As Frankie follows his own perverted road to transcendence, the great twist of The Butcher Boy is in making schizophrenia and its violent consequences seem a risible matter. Jordan paces his story as an unavoidable rush of wild language, rich characters, and boyish stunts that suddenly turn to cruelty. He also deploys a novel voiceover technique that allows the child Frankie to interact with his adult self, looking back.

Avoiding pronouncements, Jordan makes it possible to see Frankie as an innocent with no choice but to turn bad. The sociopathy is clear, but to accept it completely would distract from the wicked, misanthropic humor that explains Frankie without excusing him. For instance, it isn't Frankie's fault that someone in the village has announced the Virgin Mary as the imminent solution to the Cuban Missile Crisis; but he is to blame for disrupting this misguided solidarity with his own, more gruesome visitation.

I realize I'm beating around the bush of this revenge plot, but Frankie's rough ride is best kept as a string of surprises. Owens is note-perfect, making his Frankie a full-fledged terror while delivering some scary parallels to what we know about the boys from Jonesboro, Arkansas, and Edinboro, Pennsylvania. He's also surrounded by a supporting cast that manages to establish a community of moral and emotional cripples despite Jordan's breathtaking edits and plot twists. Frankie survives, believe it or not, but the manner of his survival remains in keeping with Jordan's particular insights into wretched human nature.

Survival takes on a different dimension for Primo Levi, who in The Truce is the central figure of his own real-life memoir. As a Holocaust survivor, Levi has to go beyond Auschwitz: He has to get home and come to terms with the world and his own self. This is both a classic picaresque narrative and a staggering thematic challenge for any storyteller. Levi first put his experiences on the page, and now the august director Francesco Rosi (Three Brothers) has delivered the screen version--a full decade after he first dreamed of it.

Since so many Holocaust-related stories are either set during the war or long after it, The Truce's novel immediacy is welcome. How did those remaining prisoners get home? What exactly did they meet in Europe's ruined landscapes? Do the survivors' varied experiences say anything in common about recovery, identity, or nationhood? Rosi gets the details sharp enough, especially since John Turturro plays Levi as sufficiently gaunt and road-weary. The settings--camps, ruined train tracks, and half-bombed buildings in fog--are also appropriately haunting.

That the journey back to Turin symbolically takes place over spring and summer fits almost too neatly with the movie's ultra-clear project, which is to revere Levi as a haunted survivor in the process of becoming a writer. The movie is seasoned with some precise comic nightmares, such as the Russian soldier who celebrates war's end by dancing Astaire-style to "Cheek to Cheek," using a sword as his partner. But the ultimate message, summed up at the end in a worn voiceover and a weary closeup, is that Levi's life was all pain and sorrow. Whether or not it alludes to Levi's later suicide, Rosi's movie undercuts its own goal by moving beyond survival to restate the horrors that made the survival necessary.

 
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