Ireland has produced one long bumper crop of storytellers – "an Irishman's heart is nothing but his imagination," quoth native son George Bernard Shaw – and yet for most of the 20th century, the story of Ireland on film was left largely to foreign filmmakers. Think The Quiet Man, Ryan's Daughter, Barry Lyndon – all made by outsider artists. That's an unlikely sobriquet for screen titans John Ford, David Lean, and Stanley Kubrick, but their films were undeniably the work of outsiders looking in, sometimes with a rose-colored viewfinder. After all, you don't visit Ireland without kissing the Blarney Stone.
It wasn't until the late Seventies and early Eighties that a proper first wave of indigenous filmmakers emerged in Ireland, and most of them didn't catch much traction off the island. The Austin Film Society's latest Essential Cinema series skips over Ireland's most celebrated contemporary exports, like Neil Jordan's The Crying Game and Jim Sheridan's My Left Foot; in his introduction to the series, guest curator Philip Fagan notes that "both directors have demonstrated an ability to couch their Irish themes in forms that have international appeal and translate easily to American audiences." Instead, this new AFS series zeros in on lesser-seen films, not so easily translated.
The series opens with December Bride, set at the turn of the 20th century but decidedly modern in its story of an experiment in alternative living arrangements. Director Thaddeus O'Sullivan swiftly establishes the harsh elements of the country – a whipping wind, sudden torrential rains – and how those elements have shaped a pragmatic, unsentimental woman named Sarah (Saskia Reeves), who lives and works on a neighbor's farm. When circumstances leave her unchaperoned on the farm with two bachelor brothers, she decides to flout convention and stay, eventually shuttling between the brothers' beds. Her polyamory sounds more salacious on paper: December Bride is interested in the love affairs only insofar as they affect Sarah's development as a protofeminist and original thinker.
Those bachelor brothers are played by the terrific character actors Ciarán Hinds (Persuasion, Game of Thrones) and Donal McCann (The Dead, Stealing Beauty); certainly one of the primary pleasures of the AFS series is in its early looks at Irish acting talent that would eventually wash up on our shores. Quite a few pop up in Nothing Personal, another period film by O'Sullivan. This one vaults to Belfast, 1975, an indicator not just of time and place but plot description in the same way that "1957, Algeria" distilled The Battle of Algiers, the influence of which O'Sullivan openly acknowledges. At first it is pointedly difficult to parse who's fighting for which side in this war zone. The soulful John Lynch (Angel Baby) plays a Catholic single father trying to stay above the fray, while James Frain (The Tudors) is a capo in a paramilitary group, with the great Michael Gambon (Harry Potter's Dumbledore) as his captain and Ian Hart (Professor Quirrell, incidentally) as his once trusted companion turned feral dog. The only film in the series to explicitly address the Troubles, Nothing Personal charts roughly 24 hours in bars and back alleys for an eloquent, if shuddering, evocation of humanity filed down to the quick.
The mood lightens with The Last Bus Home, about two provincial punk rockers who sit out the pope's visit in 1979 to croon "Teenage Kicks" as an overture to new love. (It has to be said that Brían F. O'Byrne, unfortunately saddled with Dana Carvey hair, looks too middle-aged for this portrait of youthful angst.) At first it's all fun and anarchy, a joyful middle finger to the man, the church, and parents who just don't (and will never, ever) understand, but real life catches up with the lovers: Try as they might, there's just no getting out from under its thumb. Screening with The Last Bus Home is If I Should Fall From Grace, a documentary about Celtic punk pioneer Shane MacGowan of the Pogues.
The series concludes with Neil Jordan's directorial debut, Angel, which stars frequent collaborator Stephen Rea as a saxophone player who witnesses a double murder. Initially vibing quirky-cool like an Aki Kaurismäki picture, Angel shifts tempo into a stylish and savage noir that recasts the saxman as an avenging angel of death. It all goes a little bonkers, which shouldn't surprise anyone who's ever seen a Neil Jordan film. But you probably never had the chance to see this Neil Jordan film, certainly not on the big screen, and you probably won't get it again.
All screenings are Thursdays at 7:30pm at AFS at the Marchesa (6226 Middle Fiskville).
Nov. 21: December Bride (D: Thaddeus O'Sullivan, 1991)
Dec. 5: Nothing Personal (D: Thaddeus O'Sullivan, 1995)
Dec. 12: The Last Bus Home (D: Johnny Grogan, 1997) & If I Should Fall From Grace (D: Sarah Share, 2001)
Dec. 19: Angel (D: Neil Jordan, 1982)
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