The Dublin International Film Festival gets off to a flying start
It would be wrong to suggest that Irish cinema is in hibernation. Domestic films have played at local and international festivals throughout the pandemic. But the current Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival, back in cinemas after an online event in 2021, appears to be releasing previously shackled energies into the community.
The festival opened with the triumphant screening of Colm Bairéad’s already acclaimed An Cailín Ciúin. Straight from the Berlin Film Festival – the first Irish-language feature film to play this event – this crystal-clear shot drama sends a young girl to live with relatives in the country in the early 1980s. Catherine Clinch, just 12 , carefully teases strained emotions as his character inadvertently discovers a previously unmentioned trauma. Bairéad adapts Claire Keegan’s story with great discipline and reduces the dialogue to a minimum. Among the adult cast, Carrie Cowley is particularly strong. Bairéad’s first Chekhovian feature will take him on a journey.
You might see An Cailín Ciúin as a quieter companion to Kate Dolan’s excellent horror flick You Are Not My Mother. Here is another young girl estranged from her parents. In Dolan’s Clash, Hazel Doupe plays a teenage girl who notes that her mother, who has returned after a missing period, seems strangely altered. There are flashes of folk horror throughout the image, but it also remains tied to the pressures and discomforts of city life. All performances are strong. Carolyn Bracken, as a mother, combines an unsettling, seemingly unusual dynamism with seething wizarding anxiety. Doupe, one of the best young actors in the country, channels all the public unease. It features another bizarre and disturbing score from Die Hexen. The film, however, is most notable for its vision of the liminal spaces that exist on the outskirts of cities. It’s worth rushing to its trade open this Friday.
Sasha King’s Vicky was perhaps the hardest film to see at the festival. No criticism is intended for this lucid, cleanly structured study of Vicky Phelan’s heartbreaking campaign on behalf of Irish women who received incorrect Pap smear tests for cervical cancer. One is inevitably first impressed by the determination, discipline and compassion of the eponymous subject. The film is enraged, but Mrs. Phelan herself never gives in to anger. But King’s success in packing so much information — material we think we know, but often don’t — into a clear narrative shouldn’t be underestimated. An essential document.
Other Irish documentaries unveiled during the opening weekend included Declan McGrath’s Young Plato and Vinny Murphy’s Neasa Ní Chianáin and Fatima Was Me City. The films take very different approaches to studies of well-known popular locations. Young Plato places a fly on the wall to save Kevin McArevey, headmaster of Holy Cross school in North Belfast (and Elvis fanatic), as he brings the teachings of classical philosophy to his often troubled charges . The Socratic method, it seems, has value even for those under 11 years old. Murphy’s film is a grittier affair, but it’s no less satisfying. The director brings together six men who grew up in Fatima Mansions, an often troubled neighborhood in south Dublin, from the 1970s to the 1990s. They start by noting how many of their friends are no longer with us and go on to tell us about the troubled years of the mansions. The tales are frankly Dickensian – milk and rice for dinner, children sent to prison – but the men are also very proud of their community. It’s sobering to receive confirmation that the generation that grew up in the heroine years is now comfortably in their fifties. Commendable use of limited resources.
Speaking of the passage of time, Conor McMahon has been around long enough to be considered an Irish horror veteran. May The Wrong One In reassure us that it has lost none of its anarchic dynamism. This unassuming, shall we say, comedy follows a hen party from a version of Transylvania that looks awfully like Dublin Castle in the capital where, now vampires, they infect a blameless geezer. All schools of chaos are then unleashed. McMahon, whose short film Braineater made waves two decades ago, makes promiscuous use of economical and practical digital special effects. No opportunity is wasted for one character to vomit blood on another. The escalation to total madness is dizzying. Will play well to late night audiences.
Many readers of the program had expectations raised by the promotional photo of Rachael Moriarty and Peter Murphy’s Róise and Frank. Bríd Ní Neachtain, who plays a recently widowed woman in a seaside town, sits next to a beautiful dog as the two consider the steak in front of them. Surprisingly, the Irish-language film turned out to be as charming as the picture. Róise believes the stray dog may carry her dead husband’s spirit and drives her family and friends mad as she powerfully surrenders to the animal. Needless to say, the film has a soft heart, but all reservations are lifted by a near-perfect ending. Róise and Frank is a truly delightful movie that should play well across all demographics. With the excellent Foscadh hitting theaters soon and An Cailín Ciúin making waves, this year is shaping up to be a banner year for native language cinema.
Of course, the festival also unveiled an impressive international line-up. Fernando León de Aranoa, whose Mondays in the Sun played at the first Dublin International Film Festival 20 years ago, was back with Spain’s entry for best international film at the upcoming Oscars. The Good Boss, a sly and satirical comedy, stars Javier Bardem as a factory owner who pretends to have more democratic feelings than he actually has. Red Rocket by Sean Baker, the story of a sociopathic charmer in Texas, proves to be just as effective as Tangerine and The Florida Project by the same director. Harry Wootliff’s True Things, starring Ruth Wilson and Tom Burke as mismatched lovers, performed well, but not quite up to the director’s previous Only You.
The international film of the opening weekend could well have been Vortex by Gaspar Noé. The title suggests a sequel to the deranged and restless Into the Void from this controversial French director, but instead we get a painful study of an elderly couple’s final days starring Dario Argento, one of the greatest directors in cinema. horror of the world, and Françoise Lebrun, a veteran of high-end French cinema. Making ingenious use of split-screen – the couple are both together and apart – Vortex is a grueling watch, but greatly rewards the effort invested. Who knew Noah was capable of such stillness.
Dublin Virgin Media International Film Festival continues until March 6