Jimmy’s Hall (2014)

True story of Irish hero James Grafton, who fought for independence from those colonising his land and thoughts, shows the sickening power of the Church in Depression-era Ireland.

jimmy's hallUK/Ireland
3*

Director:
Ken Loach

Screenwriter:
Paul Laverty

Director of Photography:
Robbie Ryan

Running time: 110 minutes

Although independence is usually cause for celebration, attaining it from a colonial power is often just one struggle waged and won among others, many of which still have to be achieved. To some extent this was also true of the nation of Ireland: Following the at times very bloody Irish War of Independence of 1919–21, the heavily religious population enabled the Catholic Church to play a significant role in the administration of the country, which at times resembled a theocratic fiefdom rather than a fully fledged democratic system.

The infamous case of James “Jimmy” Gralton dates to the early days of the independent Republic of Ireland. Gralton had grown up in County Leitrim in the north of the country, just south of what would become the border with Northern Ireland after the War of Independence. He emigrated to the United States as a young man, returned to fight for his country’s freedom, and subsequently opened a dance hall in his small town, an event that the conservative church found reprehensible, and he eventually had to flee back to New York City when it seemed clear he would be thrown in jail.

After the boom and bust of the 1920s, at the height of the Great Depression, Gralton (Barry Ward) returned to his homeland in 1932. He reconnects with many people from a decade earlier who encourage him to re-open the centre for music, entertainment, learning and art that once carried his name. He decides to listen and even introduces them to jazz, but the Church, in the form of Father Sheridan (Jim Norton), takes matters into its own hands, ultimately leading to unprecedented action against the man who just wanted his fellow villagers to forget their troubles and be happy.

For those unfamiliar with Gralton’s story, the context is provided in two ways at the outset, although there will surely be details, like the name of the hall (Pearse-Connolly, in reference to two of the most famous casualties of the war), that slip past unnoticed. Along with the serene opening scene, set on a horse with cart in the beautiful Irish countryside, the viewer gets numerous supertitles that sketch the political environment of the time and explain the simmering tensions between the loyalists and the Republicans, although a new, slightly less right-wing party came to power in the early 1930s and filled some with optimism.

In the first few scenes, there is also a smattering of flashbacks to the early 1920s, during the heyday of the dance hall that became the thing of legend to those who had reached their teens by the time of Gralton’s return. However, these flashbacks are elegantly preceded by just the right amount of sparse hints in the dialogue about Gralton’s history, and especially his feud with fellow townsman Commander O’Keefe (Brían F. O’Byrne), to set the scene without filling in all the blanks.

“Scars on the heart … take a long time to heal”, says Father Sheridan, speaking as much about others as about himself, and this single phrase sufficiently illuminates the collision course on which he and Gralton find themselves, although the ever-present fear of communism, and of course of losing control, also animates him greatly. The fear is far from irrational, although his reaction to it paints him as a man out to be vengeful and even authoritarian. As is so often the case, in films from The Magdalene Sisters to Philomena, the Church’s callous pursuit of power is best demonstrated through its brutal disregard for the well-being of children, and some of the most powerful scenes in Jimmy’s Hall feature the adults of tomorrow.

Even to those who don’t know anything about this particular episode, or about this period in Irish history more generally, the story may seem slightly predictable at turns. However, it is to the credit of longtime filmmaker Ken Loach that he never dwells on sentimentality too long and provides us with dialogue scenes that are heavy with words but also compelling character development. The character of the priest has to be mentioned here, as his initial black-and-white view of the world becomes slightly more shaded towards the end, making him a far more complex character than we expect, even while his repulsively unsympathetic behaviour remains.

The major issue at the heart of the story, at least from the Church’s point of view, is whether Gralton is about to embark on a campaign of brainwashing that would turn people into crimson-red communists who will follow him, the Irish Pied Piper, away to the Hamelin of a Marxist dreamland. Father Sheridan phrases the alleged attacks on Irish tradition slightly differently, by talking about the “Los Angelisation of our culture”, and he tells his church-goers that they face a fundamental choice: “Is it Christ? Or is it Gralton?”

By demonising Gralton as the Antichrist, he succeeds not only in tarring him with the brush of evil but also in striking fear in the hearts of his congregants, many of whom may not know better than to put blind trust in the words of their all-too-human priest. The consequences are tragic, but Loach is also an inspirational filmmaker who shows us how Gralton’s stay in Ireland seemed to have changed people for the better.

Although this film was widely considered to be the last by the veteran filmmaker, who at the time of release was in his late 70s and had been making films for more than 45 years (his sophomore production, Kes, released in 1969, often ranks near the top of lists of the best British films ever made), his subsequent film, I, Daniel Blake, would go on to win the coveted Palme d’Or at the Cannes International Film Festival just two years later, in 2016. 

Peacock (2015)

Short film about Czech playwright Ladislav Stroupežnický is a period piece like almost no other and has a central character who almost never speaks but evokes passion beyond words.

furiant-peacockCzech Republic
4.5*

Director:
Ondřej Hudeček 

Screenwriters:
Jan Smutný

Ondřej Hudeček
Director of Photography:
Ondřej Hudeček

Running time: 27 minutes

Original title: Furiant

The early years of the 19th-century critical realist Czech playwright Ladislav Stroupežnický are vividly brought to life with a dazzling display of humour and unconventional storytelling in Ondřej Hudeček’s 25-minute short film, Peacock (Furiant). This is the story of a young rebel whose first encounter seemed to have been divinely ordained. And even though the tale also has a tragic component, a warm romanticism that is both affectionate and slightly tongue-in-cheek infuses the presentation of the material.

Borrowing liberally from the visual style of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, as is to be expected in any period film worth its salt, the film has another reference that is even more pertinent in terms of eccentricity and playfulness: Tony Richardson’s 1963 classic Tom Jones, which has become regrettably underseen and underknown. Hudeček’s use of a period setting to tell a story that is every bit as energetic as a music video and filled with painterly landscapes yet almost entirely devoid of dialogue is thrilling, and the film’s glimpse of this famous playwright is as witty as it is educational.

The structure of Peacock, which comprises an introduction, three acts and an epilogue, is just about the only aspect that one might label as traditional, as the contents and the presentation of the material are dynamic. Not only does the film deploy animation, droll title cards and a side-splitting extract from a screenplay, but it even does away with dialogue altogether, replacing it with the coherent, ubiquitous and atmospheric voice-over by Lukáš Hlavica.

Book-ended by gorgeous shots of the interior of Prague’s National Theatre, a magnificent symbol of the Czech National Revival to which Stroupežnický would become an important contributor (many of his plays would also be performed here), the film covers 14 years in the author’s early life, from 1853 to 1867. We follow him on his riotous rejection of authority, especially of the Church, and his first love.

Ironically played by a German and not a Czech actor, the young Stroupežnický (Julius Feldmeier) has a tense face that almost never relaxes, except in the company of Jan Aleš, a close friend whom a title card early on introduces as “a poet and a great lover”. This unexpected meeting between the two is anticipated – even endorsed – in religious terms, as the narrator tells us that “Ladislav, rebelling against the supreme authority, was unaware that he would soon receive a great sign from above.” 

This first love very intelligently marks the end, at least for him, of romanticism. In fact, the film suggests that the disintegration of their intimacy – whose melodrama is rivalled only by the climax, in which Stroupežnický attempts to commit suicide but is seemingly (and rather hilariously) spared by divine intervention – was a turning point for the artist and somehow explains his subsequent conversion to critical realism.

The film uses the music of Antonín Dvořák, one of the most famous Czech composers of all time and a contemporary of Stroupežnický, all the way through, and his series of “Slavonic Dances”, in particular, provides a rich and sometimes thrillingly bombastic frame for the emotions at work in the story.

The Czech title appears to be somewhat ironic, too, as Furiant literally means “show-off”, even though Stroupežnický almost never utters a word. The original meaning refers to the type of movements that accompanied, among others, Dvořák’s “Slavonic Dances”. Clearly, the English title is connected to the first meaning, and the attention paid to the film’s absolutely stunning visuals – especially the exterior scenes, although at least one interior shot also draws attention because of its theatrical composition – is highly commendable and helps to immerse us in the beauty of the story.

Hudeček’s work here is absolutely flawless, and his talent for producing splendid images that knock us with emotional hammer blows, often in complete silence, makes the experience of watching the film all the more intense. Filled with sly humor, bubbling with creativity and assembled as a coherent work of fiction that draws on reality for inspiration, Peacock is as colourful as its English title suggests. 

Viewed at the 2015 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

Black Narcissus (1947)

UK
3*

Directors:
Michael Powell
Emeric Pressburger

Screenwriters:
Michael Powell
Emeric Pressburger

Director of Photography:
Jack Cardiff

Running time: 100 minutes

Nuns on the verge of a nervous breakdown. In Black Narcissus, Deborah Kerr is the sister superior tasked with establishing a convent on a cliff in the Himalayas, “at the back of beyond”, overlooking a valley hundreds of feet below. This convent, Saint Faith, is housed in Mopu Palace, which used to be the harem of a general living nearby. Sister Clodagh (Kerr) is trying to keep it together, but the winds are howling 24 hours a day, and the crisp mountain air has awakened “nature” inside the newcomers. The sisterhood is losing its nerve, and it is up to Sister Clodagh to get everybody back in line; to do this, however, she must first deal with her own “ghosts”.

These “ghosts” refer to Clodagh’s flashbacks, seen now and again, whenever she spots something that reminds her of a specific incident in her former life. These objects that facilitate the transition from present to past are very awkward and quite simplistic, but the flashbacks themselves do serve an important purpose, namely to show us that Clodagh’s path has had its twists and turns and that she joined the order so as to escape something else; if she were to be confronted with the same situation once more, what decision would she make this time?

Clodagh is joined by four other sisters, all of whom lose their minds over the course of the story, and at least two of them, Sister Honey and Sister Ruth, become absolutely hysterical. This hysteria becomes unbearable, and while Kathleen Byron (starring as Sister Ruth) does a fine job of seeming possessed, her eyes bulging out of their sockets, she is also the object of the camera’s affection, and Cardiff lights her face beautifully, accentuating her eye-line while obscuring the rest of her visage.

Black Narcissus earns its place as a landmark Technicolor production, and the film’s director of photography, Jack Cardiff, who would go on to light and shoot the equally breathtaking Red Shoes the following year, doesn’t disappoint for a moment. However, for all its colourful images and exquisite lighting, the film is rather bland, perhaps because some of the emotions are so extreme that one easily becomes indifferent to the nuns’ emotional turmoil.

While Sister Ruth snaps at all the women around her, finding fault with everything they do, a new girl arrives at the convent – Kanchi, a young girl with many piercings, played by Jean Simmons – who needs to be educated, since she has arrived on the doorstep of the General’s agent, Mister Dean, and expects to be made his bride. Fortunately, for his and for our sakes, he has no interest in the girl. Her character is terribly irritating and cannot be taken very seriously: In every scene, she has a lascivious look on her face that drips with heat, and while her appearance is clearly meant to be juxtaposed with the nuns and their white habits, her slithering around the General, who quickly gives her what she wants, is rather embarrassing. Luckily, when Ruth imitates Kanchi in a later scene, she is not successful in her attempts at seduction and therefore only embarrasses one of the parties: herself.

Throughout the film, we wait for the inevitable. We get a few very beautiful shots of the bell being rung at the top of the precipice, and it is rather obvious what all of this is leading up to. The power play between the nuns themselves and between the nuns and the natives, including the General and Mister Dean, has the most resonance, and directors Powell and Pressburger, together with Jack Cardiff, compose beautiful shots, particularly notable in some of the first scenes, in which ceiling fans, or their shadows, may be spotted in every frame.

Black Narcissus, shot almost entirely inside Pinewood Studios, with painted backdrops standing in for the actual Himalayas, wants to tackle the conflict between human nature and the restrictions of an order such as that found at a convent, but given the influence of the Catholic League of Decency at the time, this film was not allowed to go very far in its investigation, and it falls woefully short of communicating anything of real substance. But Cardiff, as he would do in The Red Shoes, creates images that  sear into one’s memory, and it is his work that manages to elevate the film into the realm of the “must-sees”.