Áine O’Healy reports from the Twelfth Edition of The Irish Film Festa in Rome, which ran from March 27th to 31st 2019.
In late March a cohort of Irish actors, directors and producers arrived in Rome as guests of the Irish Film Festa, which ran from March 27 to March 31. Now in its twelfth iteration, the festival has expanded to a five-day programme of screenings, workshops, panels, and other events. Taking place annually at the prestigious Casa del Cinema—a stone’s throw from the Via Veneto and the resonances of the dolce vita that this location evokes—it showcases the best of recent filmmaking from both sides of Ireland’s north-south divide. Under the creative direction of Susanna Pellis since its inception, it has found increasing popularity with Roman filmgoers, drawing full houses over the entire course of the festival. The audience is for the most part Italian (the films are subtitled and all other events are facilitated through interpreters) with a sprinkling of Irish and other English-speaking expats also in attendance.
Although festivals of Irish cinema are beginning to proliferate across the planet—some of the invited guests at the Rome event had just attended the recently established Moscow Irish film festival—Rome’s Festa has distinctive characteristics that set it apart from the others thanks to the vision and acumen of Susanna Pellis, whose specialized knowledge, passion and dedication have shaped its unique profile since 2007. It remains a relatively intimate and remarkably dynamic event that offers multiple opportunities for Irish filmmakers (both well-established and up-and-coming) to interact with each other and with local audiences.
The programming is thus never simply an assortment of new releases from Ireland. Rather, it reveals Pellis’ keen awareness of ongoing developments in Irish filmmaking—not only with respect to mainstream releases, but also making room for more quirky, independent features, documentaries, shorts, and experimental productions. More importantly, it is shaped by her capacity to facilitate reflection on the larger implications of these developments through many opportunities for conversation and interaction. The screenings are accompanied by a stimulating range of presentations, interviews, workshops, and question and answer sessions, involving directors, actors and other industry professionals.
Short Film Winners Paul Horan & Mia Mullarkey
Since 2010, the Festa has included a competition of short films. Sixteen of the films submitted this year were selected as finalists and screened at the 2019 festival, with the two winners announced and then re-screened on the closing night. With its incisive exposé of the events surrounding the discovery of the remains of almost 800 children in a sewer adjacent to the former Bon Secours Home in Tuam in 2017, Mia Mullarkey’s Mother & Baby won the documentary award. It includes archival material as well as interviews with several aging former residents of the notorious Mother and Baby Homes and with the self-trained historian, Catherine Corless, who spent years uncovering evidence of the horrific neglect and undocumented deaths of an astonishing number of children at the nearby convent. This is an impressive work that pays particular attention to the effects of traumatic memory and to the courage of the extraordinarily modest woman who singlehandedly unveiled the scandal and now quietly dedicates her life to supporting the survivors’ ongoing quest for justice.
The film that won the Best Drama Short award, Paul Horan’s Bless me Father, also broaches the issue of the excessive power of the Catholic Church in Ireland. A two-hander set entirely within the confines of a confessional, the film dramatizes the revenge of a terminally ill man against a priest who had psychologically tyrannized his parishioners with a demoralizing rhetoric of fear and guilt. Like Mother & Baby, it portrays Irish society as an insular world paralyzed by secrets and shame, where Catholic clergy and other religious figures occupy a far too dominant role. Although the power of religious institutions is clearly on the wane in Irish society at present, filmmakers may be exercising a cathartic role in bringing to light the lingering effects of still unspoken wounds.
The festival’s opening feature this year was Nick Kelly’s well-received The Drummer and a Keeper, which reprises the well-worn trope of unlikely friendship between mismatched individuals. From the initial, explosive encounter between an institutionalized autistic teenager and a gifted, though temperamental drummer in his twenties who suffers psychotic episodes, it traces the ups and downs of a relationship that is fraught with pain and defensive cruelty. For the most part, the film is infused with psychological drama and suspense, yet it achieves a heart-warming resolution that seems as improbable as it is unexpected. Despite the upbeat ending, a sense of worry may linger for the viewer long after the film’s conclusion, as the storyline has so vividly exposed the fragility of human connections based on the recognition of mutual of pain and isolation. Yet Kelly’s film is more than just another iteration of the “odd couple” movie. Rather, it seems to be part of a growing trend in Irish filmmaking that broaches the pressing question of mental health in contemporary Irish society.
Moe Dunford & Frank Berry discuss Michael Inside
Frank Berry’s Michael Inside also looks at a difficult social issue, in this case the limited prospects and ever-present risks for young people growing up in depressed urban areas, many of whom are almost inevitably destined for incarceration. The film is a prison drama that transcends the genre at many levels. Although the action unfolds for the large part “inside”, the violence it depicts is principally psychological. Dafhyd Flynn plays the vulnerable 18-year old Michael, who lives with his grandfather on a rough housing estate in Dublin. The old man hopes his grandson will escape the vicious circle of repeated convictions and incarcerations to which many youths in the neighborhood have succumbed, and Michael, too, seems intent on avoiding the routine drug dealing practiced by his circle of acquaintances. Pressured by a friend to hide a stash of drugs in his grandfather’s home, he ends up in prison. Though neither a buyer nor a dealer, he is too intimidated to reveal the source of the stash he was forced to hide. Little by little, Michael is acculturated to hierarchies of prison life and to the moral compromises that prisoners adopt to cope with the conditions of incarceration. The power plays in which he becomes entangled while in prison pursue him even after his release, so he ends up back inside, just like his father. Berry’s direction is assured, drawing fine performances from the cast, which include both professionals, such as Moe Dunford and Lalor Roddy, and non-professionals. Several minor roles are performed by former prisoners with real-life experience of the narrative context. The result is a splendid film of consistent psychological tension tempered by a persistent melancholy. The screening was followed by a panel discussion and question and answer session with Berry and Dunford, which helped to cast light on Berry’s creative process, careful research, and his history of creative collaboration with former prisoners and residents of the blighted social environments that the film evokes.
Every year the Festa includes the screening of at least one “classic” film of Irish cinema. This year’s selection was Colin Gregg’s Lamb (1985), featuring Liam Neeson as Michael Lamb, a novice on the staff of an industrial school run by a religious order, and Hugh O’Conor as Owen, the epileptic ten-year-old he takes under his wing and eventually whisks off to England in an attempt to spare the boy the everyday cruelties of the institution. Foreshadowing a critique that emerged with greater force in several subsequent Irish films, Lamb hints at the troubling underpinnings of the religious institutions that had shaped Irish identity since the creation of the state. As an oppositional figure, Michael seems at first sympathetic, even heroic, in his desire to save the boy from institutional brutality. Yet in the long run he reveals himself to be tragically immature and self-deluding. Neeson’s powerful performance gives coherence and credibility to a role that may have been a great deal less convincing in less capable hands.
Hugh O’Conor in conversation
Following the screening of Lamb, Hugh O’Conor was invited to share his memories of working on the film with Neeson at the age of ten. A multi-talented artist, O’Conor is one of those rare individuals to have made a successful transition from child performer to adult actor (his most widely seen childhood role was as the young Christy Brown in Jim Sheridan’s My Left Foot in 1989). This year O’Conor came to the Festa principally as a director. His debut feature—a particularly popular film with the Rome audience—was Metal Heart. This upbeat coming of age comedy (the only film in the festival with a female lead) hinges on the rivalry between a pair of 17-year old twin sisters with contrasting interests and personalities. With their parents away on a long overseas holiday, tensions and conflicts flare up between the mismatched pair. Unfolding in the weeks leading up to the announcement of the Leaving Cert results, the story conveys the excitement, uncertainty and worry felt by a substantial cohort of Irish teenagers at a crucial moment of transition. Though the film favours the perspective of Emma, the “goth” sister (Jordanne Jones), over her more conventional and supposedly prettier twin, Chantal (Leah McNamara), both characters are drawn with sympathy and affection, making their eventual reconciliation less than a surprise. Playing Emma’s creative partner, Seán Doyle pulls off a strong performance as teenage musician struggling to withstand parental pressures to conform to middle-class expectations. Meanwhile, Moe Dunford exerts his seductive charm as the wayward son of an aging neighbor, who partly but not fully succeeds in breaking the protagonist’s heart. Despite the specificity of some of its social and cultural references and the limitations of its production budget, Metal Heart is obviously intended to speak to audiences not only in Ireland but also abroad, and the festival viewers responded with genuine enthusiasm to its appeal, as became evident in the discussion and subsequent question and answer session.
Dara Devaney, well known to Irish audiences for his early, recurring presence in the Irish language soap Ros na Rún and for many subsequent film roles, was one of the guests of the Festa this year. A native speaker of Irish, he is the star of the Irish-language docudrama, Murdair Mhám Trasna, which he presented at the Festa. Devaney plays the tragic figure of Myles Joyce (also known as Maolra Seoighe) who was hanged in a miscarriage of justice at Galway Gaol in 1882 for a crime he did not commit. This brilliantly executed film directed by Colm Bairéad and produced by ROSG for TG4 provides a dramatic reconstruction of the brutal murder of an extended family in remote Connemara, followed by the arrest, trial and execution of the suspects. The film underlines the fact that several of the accused, most notably the entirely innocent Myles Joyce, spoke Irish only, but the trial was conducted in Dublin entirely in English. Dramatic recreations of these well-documented historical events are interspersed with commentary by various contemporary personalities, including historian Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh of NUIG and President Michael D. Higgins, who granted Joyce a posthumous pardon around the time of the film’s release. Issues of colonial abuse and the silencing of subaltern subjects are vividly dramatized in this film, which, despite its remote historical context, has clear lessons for our neoliberal and neocolonial times.
One of the revelations of this year’s Festa was the increasingly creative and often hybrid use of the documentary form by Irish filmmakers. Apart from Murdair Mhám Trasna, three other powerful feature-length explorations of specific historical and contemporary realities of Irish life appeared on the programme. Feargal Ward’s The Lonely Passion of Thomas Reid offers a quirky combination of standard documentary approaches and dramatic reconstruction. The film tells the powerful story of one man’s battle against the forces of global neoliberalism. Reid, the man in question, is an independent-minded Co. Kildare farmer who refused to relinquish his ancestral land in the face of the IDA’s strong-arm efforts to force him to sell it with the aim of enabling the occupant of the adjacent property, the multinational corporation Intel, to expand its premises and, supposedly, create hundreds of new jobs. Reid’s story is a parable of the ongoing struggle between those lingering elements in Irish society that cling to values and traditions of the past and the indomitable advance of corporate modernity. The stakes of this struggle are beautifully captured by Ward’s patient, painstaking exposé.
The Festa also offered two excellent documentaries from Northern Ireland, each of them focused in distinctive ways on the Troubles. The first was Seán Murray’s Unquiet Graves, detailing the collaboration between the RUC and the Ulster Defence Regiment in the murder of over 120 civilians in a campaign conducted across a broad swath of Co. Armagh and Co. Tyrone from July 1972 to the end of 1978, but also encompassing the bombings in Monaghan and Dublin in May 1974. Using archival material, reconstructions, and contemporary interviews—including a riveting conversation with whistleblower John Weir, a former member of the RUC and a convicted murderer–the film is a stunning indictment of state organized violence and startling abuses of power that are still unacknowledged at the official level.
Unquiet Graves was followed by Brendan Byrne’s Hear my Voice, which is structured as an audio-visual engagement with painter Colin Davidson’s large-scale portraits of eighteen victims and survivors of the Troubles. The film alternates between images of Davidson’s mute but haunting portraits (collectively titled ‘Silent Testimony’) and interviews with survivors and relatives of those killed in various attacks over a period of several years. Though sectarian issues are not mentioned in these testimonies, it becomes clear that Byrne’s interlocutors are living with the effects of atrocities committed by both Republican and Loyalist factions. With its quiet, poetic force, the film provides a searing reminder of the traumatic legacies of a violent conflict years after its purported conclusion.
Isle of Docs panel
In recognition of the recent flourishing of the documentary form among Irish filmmakers, a panel titled ‘Isle of Docs’ followed the screening of these films, featuring Frank Berry and Seán Murray in discussion with Susanna Pellis. Berry has made an award-winning documentary (Ballymun Lullaby) in addition to two feature films, all of which are grounded in social realities of the economically deprived communities around Dublin with which he is familiar. Murray, a self-described activist filmmaker, is based by contrast in Belfast. He has focused on making documentaries and shorts dedicated to issues specific to the people of Northern Ireland—particularly with regard to the legacy of the Troubles, and he sees his films as having the power to disturb and challenge the status quo. Since they each work in different jurisdictions and different production environments, some of the discussion concentrated precisely on the differences in funding opportunities and institutional support for documentary filmmaking north and south of the Border. The fact that both Berry and Murray have produced work of such conceptual rigour and professionalism augurs well for the future of the documentary on the island of Ireland.
John Lynch Interview
The festival frequently offers masterclasses run by notable Irish actors. This year it was the turn of veteran actor John Lynch, guest of honour at the Festa, to take on the role of workshop leader. Lynch was in fact already a well-known face to audiences of the IFF, which over the years has screened several films in which he has played a prominent role. Pellis conducted a substantial, wide-ranging interview with Lynch on the day following the workshop, exploring the full arc of his acting career and his ancestral ties to Italy, or more specifically to his mother’s birthplace in the region of Molise. He discussed his early involvement in Irish language theatre while in school in Northern Ireland, his move to England and development in professional theatre, the many film roles he was offered that centred on the Troubles of Northern Ireland, and his more recent work in serial television. Although inevitably associated with Northern Ireland, Lynch is a truly transnational figure, as he now lives in southern France, has learned to speak French, and has even performed in French. He also discussed his development as a writer—a pursuit adopted in mid-life—and announced that he has completed his third novel. Following the interview, the festival audience had the opportunity to watch one of Lynch’s characteristically intense performances in the Australian feature Angel Baby (Michael Rymer, 1995), in which he plays a psychiatrically disturbed young man teetering on the edge of self-destruction.
The Dig‘s Lorcan Cranitch, RyanTohill and Moe Dunford with Susanna Pellis
A few years ago, the IFF screened Patrick’s Day (Terry McMahon, 2014), a film that introduced the festival audience to the considerable talent of Moe Dunford, then a rising star of Irish cinema and now an established presence. Dunford was one of the guests of this year’s Festa and appeared in no less than four of the films on the programme. Cast in supporting roles in Michael Inside, Metal Heart, and Black ’47, he plays the lead in The Dig, the first feature film directed by Ryan and Andy Tohill. Here Dunford gives an astonishing performance as Calahan, whom we first encounter as he arrives home to his boarded-up cottage in Co. Antrim after completing a fifteen-year sentence for killing his girlfriend. Since the body had never been found and Calahan has no recollection of the crime—admitting to state of drunken oblivion at the time of the murder—his conviction was based entirely on DNA evidence. Yet he does not claim to be innocent. Discovering that his neighbour, the girl’s father (Lorcan Cranitch), has been digging up the vast bogland on Calahan’s property for years in a still futile attempt to unearth the body, he tries to get the intruder off his land. When he fails to achieve this, Calahan begins to dig alongside the man who understandably hates him, while both of them are carefully observed by a threatening local policeman who dominates everyone and everything in the area as though he were the law itself. With little dialogue, most of the film is shot outdoors in the eerie winter light, as both men struggle with the hard labor of digging and with the ups and downs of their psychological tug-of-war. The scenes set in this stark, elemental landscape are mostly without dialogue, with the actors relying on movement and facial expression to communicate acute pain, anger, and frustration. Eventually, however, the men’s relationship becomes more complex and complicit. This psychological drama is overlaid by resonances of the western, which mark the story as a familiar, intensely masculine contest played out between and among men—the returned convict, the farmer seeking justice or revenge, and the man of the law. Although the farmer’s surviving daughter has a more important role in the narrative resolution than we might have expected, the film’s conclusion affirms that the story belongs fundamentally to the men, as is true of the classic western. Despite a hurried, disappointingly underwritten third act, the powerful effects of the cinematography and performances remain with the viewer long after The Dig comes to an end. Clearly a film that struck the festival audience with particular force, it was followed by a lively discussion with co-director Ryan Tohill, Dunford, and Cranitch and elicited one of the most engaged question and answer sessions over the course of the Festa.
Black ’47 (Lance Daly, 2018) is the only feature film produced to date to take on the subject of the Great Famine. This is not, however, a conventional period drama. Instead, the filmmaker has given us a revenge thriller with strong influences of the western. These elements make for engrossing viewing, despite the predominant use of the Irish language (subtitled in English and, for the Festa, in Italian), the bleak colour palette, and the vision of a frozen Connemara landscape inhabited by a starving population. This desolate spectacle of famine and injustice is witnessed through the eyes of Connemara native, Martin Feeney (James Frecheville), upon his return from the war in Afghanistan where he had fought for the Crown as a member of the Connaught Rangers. Finding that his closest family members are either dead or homeless, Feeney realizes that he is witnessing a social order as depraved as that of any colonial outpost, and begins to seek revenge. What the film makes clear is that the Great Famine was no natural disaster. Though the potato crop has failed, food is not lacking even in remote Connemara. The local landlord (Jim Broadbent) is in possession of huge store of grain that he refuses to concede to the starving locals, and thus becomes one of the targets of Feeney’s avenging mission. The dramatic tension intensifies when Hannah, an IRC officer with whom Feeney had served in Afghanistan, is sent by Dublin Castle to track down and eliminate the avenging Irishman. What the authorities do not know is that Hannah owes Feeney a debt of honour, and the Englishman makes good that debt first by urging Feeney to escape with his life, and when he refuses, by aiding him in his final act of vengeance. Although the ultimate narrative resolution has elements of the formulaic, the film functions as a kind of popular history lesson. It certainly had this effect in Rome, where few of the viewers seemed aware of the events of that fatal year remembered in the collective consciousness of Irish people as ‘black ’47’.
Pellis generously includes in the Festa elements rarely seen at film festivals—usually literary and musical events—that connect filmmaking with other related art forms. In this way, she invites Italians to appreciate many dimensions of Ireland’s rich cultural output. This year we were treated to twenty brilliant photographic portraits of Irish artists captured beautifully by the Irish actor and director Hugh O’Conor.
Karl Geary with Simona Pellis
The literary spotlight of this year’s Festa was on Karl Geary’s novel, Montpelier Parade, recently translated into Italian. Geary—also an actor—was at the festival specifically to discuss his work as a fiction writer. Simona Pellis presented the novel to the assembled audience and conducted a thoughtful interview with the author. Predominantly a coming of age story, the novel is narrated in the second person, a detail that intrigued several of those who participated in the lively question and answer session that followed the interview. Geary expressed gratitude that so many of those present had read his work with close attention. Prior to writing the novel, Geary had been for the most part involved in screenwriting and performance, and some audience members may well have remembered his work in Ken Loach’s Jimmy’s Hall.
Prof. Aine O’Healy with Dara Devaney
In addition to a literary event, almost every edition of the IFF has included at least one live musical performance. This year the musical spotlight fell on actor Dara Devaney, who performed two plaintive songs in the sean nós tradition as a prelude to the screening Black ’47. One of these, the mysteriously worded ‘Johnny Seoighe’, is the only known Irish song that refers explicitly to the Great Famine.
The Irish Film Festa thus underscores the multiplicity of talents that characterize many of those who are active in the Irish filmmaking community and it offers Italian audiences a general sense of the high level of contemporary cultural production in Ireland. As an annual festival dedicated to Irish cinema, it is unparalleled in its scope and vision, providing much more than simply a selection of recent films that happen to be made in Ireland.
Áine O’Healy teaches film and Italian studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. She is author of Migrant Anxieties: Italian Cinema in a Transnational Frame (Indiana University Press, 2019).