Áine O’Healy takes in the celebrations at the Irish Film Festa tenth anniversary.
This year’s iteration of the Irish Film Festa in Rome, which ran from March 30 to April 2, marked the tenth anniversary of its inception. Unfolding as usual at the Casa del Cinema in the splendid surroundings of the Villa Borghese, it featured an impressive line-up of screenings, interviews, and other ancillary events. The Festa is entirely a grassroots organization, nurtured by the creative vision and organizational skills of Susanna Pellis, who had written two books on Irish cinema before devoting her energies to directing the festival. Far from a random sampling of new Irish titles, her screening selections invariably offer a coherent insight into Ireland’s contemporary cultural production.
Speaking to the audience on the opening night, Irish Ambassador Bobby McDonagh noted with irony how the dates of this year’s Festa coincided with the implementation of Brexit, a process that will bring unknown consequences to the people of Ireland, now confronted with the strong possibility of a re-instated border and with the material and symbolic restrictions it will impose. In contrast to the isolationism signalled by Brexit, the transnational spirit embodied in events like Rome’s Irish Film Festa suggests a salutary openness and a quest for reciprocal cultural enrichment.
Jim Sheridan & Susanna Pellis
The 2017 Festa was particularly rich and varied, showcasing several new feature films of different genres and production budgets, as well as two “classics” (John Boorman’s The General and Jim Sheridan’s The Boxer). Since 2010, the festival has included a competition of short films, the visibility of which has grown over the years, attracting entries of increasingly high quality. This year, following a record number of submissions, fifteen finalists were screened in competition, running the gamut from documentary to drama, comedy, horror and thriller. The winners, announced on closing night, were Vincent Gallagher’s Second to None (animated) and Ian Hunt Duffy’s Gridlock (live action).
Also on the programme was a range of stimulating supplementary offerings, including a lecture on cinema and the Troubles by Martin McLoone, professor emeritus of media and film at the University of Ulster; interviews with numerous actors, directors, screenwriters, and producers active in Irish filmmaking; question and answer sessions that produced genuine conversations among the filmmakers and a very attentive audience; a literary event featuring Dublin writer Dermot Bolger; and a photo exhibition featuring highlights of the Festa’s ten-year history.
The broad cultural sweep reflected in the programme makes this event strikingly different from the handful of Irish film festivals held annually in the United States. The Festa has built a strong following in Italy, not only in the Irish expatriate community, but also among growing numbers of Italians, who return each year to discover a new crop of Irish releases and to mingle with the invited guests. The relative smallness of the venue (with just two screening spaces) creates an intimacy unimaginable at larger festivals, facilitating communication among participants, industry specialists, and viewers alike. Most screenings and events were packed to capacity.
Pellis always comes up with a broad mix of films, reflecting the speed with which Irish filmmakers have accommodated a range of genres, styles, and themes over the past quarter century. The 2017 programme showed the remarkable variety of contemporary Irish film production, with titles that included the caper film The Flag (Declan Recks), the zany road movie The Young Offenders (Peter Foott), the recession-themed thriller Traders, and the finely observed psychological drama, In View (Ciarán Creagh). In the dramatic feature films screened at the festival a richly reflective meditation on social life in Ireland emerges with striking force through stories offering insight into contemporary social problems such as suicide, alcoholism, and the inadequate accommodation of intellectual disability. While the Irish landscape, both north and south of the border, is very much in evidence, views of Dublin no longer sharply dominate images of urban life in the Republic. Instead, there are alluring glimpses of urbanized Galway in Sanctuary, directed by Len Collin, and a lovingly fetishized Cork in Foott’s The Young Offenders).
Another important aspect of the Festa’s attention to diversity and inclusiveness is evident in Pellis’ consistent effort to bring filmmaking in Northern Ireland into dialogue with the cinema of the Republic by inviting film professionals from both constituencies to the festival each year. The section devoted to Northern Ireland in the 2017 programme featured two very different but equally accomplished short films, Two Angry Men (Toto Ellis) and Starz (Kevin Treacy and Martin McCann). The former is a period piece based on real events, which packs considerable force into just under seventeen minutes of running time. Its story focuses on the struggle of shipyard-worker-turned-playwright Tom Thompson and theatre director James Ellis, to bring the play Over The Bridge to the Belfast stage in 1959. Inspired by a sectarian dispute in the Harland and Wolff shipyard, which many now see as a prelude to the Troubles, Thompson’s play was initially censored by the Belfast establishment because of its political content. Two Angry Men recounts the ultimately successful efforts of Thomson and Ellis to resist this censorship and to stage Over the Bridge in its original form. Directed by Toto Ellis—son of the now deceased James Ellis—and starring seasoned actors Adrian Dunbar and Mark Shea, this surprisingly compact work powerfully evokes the mood of the period and the political tensions that underpinned it.
Martin McCann & Gerard McSorley
Starz offers comedic contrast to the darker tones of Two Angry Men. A 30-minute low-budget mockumentary, it follows the maniacally self-deceptive antics of a theatrical agent down on his luck in contemporary Belfast. In the lead role, Gerard McSorley delivers a rare comic performance that is laced with subtlety and nuance. Martin McCann, one of the co-directors of Starz and a guest of this year’s festival, took part in the lively post-screening discussion alongside McSorley.
McCann also played a role in the most important documentary screened at the 2017 Festa, Brendan Byrne’s Bobby Sands: 66 Days, where he provides a poignant voiceover reading of Sands’ “hunger diary.” This is the diary written during the first 17 days of Sands’ highly publicized slow death by self-starvation in 1981. Co-produced by Northern Ireland, Ireland, Denmark and Sweden, the film exemplifies the hybridity and vitality of contemporary documentary practices. Mixing animation, reenactment, interviews and archival material to retell the story of Sands, it provides fresh insights not only into the personality of this now legendary figure but also into the historical context and eventual political effects of the hunger strike.
One of the highlights of the Festa’s tenth anniversary edition was the presence of Jim Sheridan, acknowledged in the programme notes for having “kick-started” Irish cinema at the end of the 1980s. In the course of a generous, wide-ranging interview with Pellis, Sheridan shared reflections on his artistic process, his international career, and the dynamics of transnational reception. A striking moment occurred in the discussion with the audience when Carlo Carlei – a well-known Italian director attending the screenings – acknowledged Sheridan’s formidable talent as a storyteller, so powerfully reflected in The Boxer. Sheridan’s gracious capacity to interact with people of different backgrounds made the interview and open mic discussion with him one of the festival’s most memorable elements.
The two Sheridan films on the programme, The Boxer (1997) and The Secret Scripture (2016), offer a fascinating sample of the director’s work at different stages of his career. Set on the cusp of the Northern Ireland peace agreement and highlighting tensions among supporters of the Republican cause, the earlier film has not lost its ability to rivet audiences to their seats, even if the circumstances it recounts have by now receded into distant memory. The Boxer’s enduring power is clearly due to Sheridan’s keen sense of timing and direction, as well as the stellar performances of Daniel Day-Lewis, Gerard McSorley and Emily Watson.
The Secret Scripture is a more complicated work, in part because of the challenges of adapting a widely acclaimed novel with a complex narrative structure. Opening at the Toronto Film Festival last year, the film has largely perplexed festival audiences and overseas reviewers. Adopting the novel’s dual narrative track, it is set both in rural Sligo in the 1940s and in a crumbling psychiatric hospital in the Celtic Tiger era. Rooney Mara plays the youthful embodiment of the leading character, Roseanne, who becomes a victim of misogyny, bigotry, sectarian prejudice, and fanatical nationalism in the Sligo village to which she has fled after the Belfast bombings of 1941. Eventually institutionalized for life on suspicion of infanticide, she reappears fifty-odd years later in the guise of Vanessa Redgrave. Now a tormented old woman who has painfully recorded her memories in the margins of a bible, she refuses to leave the hospital that is slated for demolition. Like the novel, the film offers a last-minute twist that builds toward an improbably happy resolution, in spite of the overwhelming pessimism inherent in the narrative as a whole.
Both Mara and Redgrave deliver fine performances, but there is little that unites their respective styles. Furthermore, the sectarian divisions and political tensions that drive much of the violence in the story may well be lost on non-Irish viewers, as the contextual elements are minimally developed. However, thanks to the striking cinematography of Mikhail Krichman, The Secret Scripture is a visually arresting film, where the beauty of the Irish landscape (and of the actors) is in sharp contrast with the brutality and mean spiritedness of the characters inhabiting this provincial world.
Gerard McSorley tickles the ivory
Gerard McSorley, who has collaborated with Sheridan over the years, also proved to be an extremely popular guest at the Festa, appearing in three of the films on this year’s program (The Boxer, In View, and Starz) in widely contrasting roles. Interviewed after the screening of In View alongside the talented leading actress Caoilfhionn Dunne, he offered the audience some fascinating insights into his career, personal life, and some of the social problems currently afflicting Ireland. Later, much to the delight of the festival audience, he launched into a spontaneous performance on the grand piano.
Peter Foott, The Young Offenders
Among the films screened at the 2017 Festa, a clear audience favourite was Peter Foott’s The Young Offenders, which focuses on a pair of 15-yeard old working- class adolescents intent on tracking down the huge shipment of cocaine “misplaced” by smugglers off the coast of West Cork. Highlights of the film are the impeccable comic performances of newcomers Alex Murphy and Chris Walley as the titular “offenders,” and a remarkable chase scene – on bicycles – through the bucolic landscape of Co. Cork. Though the plot unfolds to a large extent in rural surroundings, the characters are decidedly urban, and Cork itself is presented as a rough-edged, but entirely distinctive contemporary city, whose charms are highlighted at every possible turn. Foott noted in the Q & A following the screening that The Young Offenders has drawn record numbers of viewers in Cork, playing to packed houses for weeks on end.
Perhaps the most original feature film shown at the festival this year was Len Collin’s Sanctuary, which tells the story of a trip to the cinema by group of young, cognitively disabled individuals and their carer. Based on a play of the same title produced by the Blue Teapot Company in Galway, it features a fine ensemble of actors, with the lead performers drawn from the original theatrical cast. All members of the group (excluding the carer) are played by actors with real cognitive disabilities, lending a vibrant sense of authenticity to the unfolding events. The two characters at the centre of the plot, Larry and Sophie, have arranged, with the paid complicity of the carer, to dodge the cinema and spend some time together, unsupervised, in a hotel room, a move that leads to tragicomic consequences for all. The film raises many fascinating ethical, legal, social and psychological issues. What stands out, however, is Collin’s remarkable directing skill and the bracing performances elicited from his extraordinary cast.
That Pellis continues to bring films like these to Rome year after year – along with many filmmakers, writers, and actors – is a remarkable achievement. A huge debt of gratitude is owed to her and to her small, dedicated team for offering audiences a demonstration of genuine cultural transnationalism at a time when the growth of isolationist rhetoric and xenophobic sentiment seems to threaten the fragile peace of our globe.
Áine O’Healy is a professor in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, where I teach Italian cinema, Irish film, transnational film, and cultural studies.
La 10a edizione di Irish Film Festa, dal 30 marzo al 2 aprile 2017 alla Casa del Cinema di Roma.