Kimberly Reyes takes shelter under Seán Breathnach’s Irish-language drama.

The name of this Seán Breathnach film translates to shelter in English, and for 90 minutes we are left to figure out what that means to a man who’s never had a real place in the world. The movie is the screen adaptation of the Donal Ryan novel “The Thing About December ” set during the Celtic Tiger. The film adaptation is Ireland’s Official Entry into the 2022 Best International Feature Oscars.

Dónall Ó Héalai plays the neurodivergent John Cunliffe who lives with his mother until he finds himself alone in the world after her sudden death in the first scene of the film. Without his parents’ protection, Cunliffe is left with their house and land to manage on his own. Almost immediately a neighborhood thug brutally attacks him out of jealousy for his sudden, perceived fortune, and Cunliffe must spend time in a hospital. In the hospital he makes a new friend and meets a potential romantic partner, two things he seems to have never had. When he returns home, he must learn how to integrate these precipitous relationships into his solitary life while also navigating around a scrupulous land developer eager to scam him out of his Connemara, waterfront land. 

Héalai’s performance as a quiet, handsome, unassuming, possible-30-something-year-old who doesn’t know his or his land’s worth is mesmerizing to watch. He’s awkward but comes across as strangely relatable (for example, Héalai makes it oddly justifiable for a man under extreme stress to go masturbate in the middle of his mother’s funeral). In fact, Cunliffe is portrayed as possibly the most sane and trustworthy person in the film, as he only reacts to the incredulous situations he finds himself in as opposed to instigating them. 

The film’s stunning cinematography ranges from soothing and vibrant mint green grass and old country walls to crisp blue and orange skies. The land is as much a character in the film as the people who come and go in Cunliffe’s life, leaving behind rubbish and disregard. As a trusted family friend tells Cunliffe, while advising him not to give in to the land developer, “we’re nothing without our land.” As the film grows darker, some scenes could double as an Irish tourism ad if Ireland were trying to get Donnie Darko to visit. 

Beyond being a movie that is deeply tied to the land and is told in the Irish language, Foscadh speaks to some of the underlying issues of the island. The story of outside forces trying to swindle a simple man out of his birthright is allegory for the modern Ireland the book and film are set in. For his entire life Cunliffe felt something intangible to be wrong with him, when in reality he, like the land, is strong, steady, and fertile. Vultures, vampires, and colonizers may come to make him feel otherwise, but in the end the intangible may just be our lack of humanity. 

Foscadh is in cinemas from 11th March 2022.


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