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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Reels V: From priests to rockers

This is the column where I look back at all the films and videos that were shown at the latest Irish Reels Film & Video Festival and make some sweeping generalizations about what it all means for Irish cinema, arts and culture.

Well, I can strain to come up with something, like I did last year, or I can just admit that generalizing about even a relatively small country like Ireland simply doesn’t work.

But still, I can at least point out one trend that I think I noticed. Irish films, like Irish people in general, have developed a jaundiced and cynical view of the church that something like 94 percent of them (in the republic anyway) belong to. We already know this from lots of Irish movies and television shows. The prime example in this year’s Irish Reels is Steve Barron’s zany comedy Rat, which can be thought of as the anti-Stuart Little. This film features not one but two actors very well known in Ireland (and abroad) for playing Irish priests. Frank Kelly is on hand as “Uncle Matt.” He does not play a priest in the movie, but his very presence can’t help remind us of the over-the-top, monosyllabic, profane, alcoholic priest, Father Jack, he played on that reverential series, Father Ted. The Uncle Matt character almost seems calculated to play against that image because it is so diametrically opposed to Father Jack. Uncle Matt is urbane, knowledgeable, and a bit posh. He is a constant source of unlikely information, some of it useful, much of it trivial. It’s almost as though they had merged the Cliff and Frasier characters from the old Cheers TV series.

Also on hand is Niall Toibin, who has had a long and distinguished acting career but who is probably best known to many as the irascible Father Mac on Ballykissangel. In Rat, he is playing another priest, but it seems to be a deliberate joke how much more irascible Father Geraldo (name inspired by a certain US journalist?) is than Father Mac. He is the sort of cleric who will bellow out the name of a woman at the back of the church and call her a cow for talking during the mass—just before he sends everyone off with a cheery “Merry Christmas.” He gets a mad glint in his eye as he prepares to perform an exorcism on a rat that has been locked in a refrigerator. He has taken the rat’s son (it’s a long story), an aspiring priest himself and aptly named Pius, under his a wing, and we get the definite feeling that these two will soon be concocting another Inquisition. In sum, Rat isn’t particularly kind to the Catholic Church.

The church also gets dragged through the wringer in the short film Limbo, in which it is roundly condemned for its former policy of not recognizing babies who died unbaptized. While the film makes a valid point and effectively conveys its sense of moral outrage, it confuses its message by going to great lengths to draw some sort of parallel between that situation and the disappearance of people in Northern Ireland during The Troubles. This is tantamount to calling the church a band of terrorists, and the Vatican better hope that George W. Bush doesn’t get wind of it.

Religion in general gets a bit of a drubbing in another couple of shorts. The Oscar-nominated animated piece Fifty Percent Grey portrays the afterlife as a big wasteland cum waiting room with a widescreen TV to orient one to one’s new surroundings. (Soothing male voice: “Welcome to purgatory…”) The Irish language film Dillusc takes a tourist phenomenon like Dingle’s Fungi the dolphin and imagines that the dolphin has become some sort of religious icon with healing properties. Too bad about the accident with the boat no one knows about. But that doesn’t stop the profitable tours from continuing. Even worse, in the film noir parody Coolockland, we see Jesus Himself actually getting bounced from a nightclub. (“I am the King,” bellows the Messiah. Elvis shows up later.)

But the most telling moment may be an unintended one in the opening night film How Harry Became a Tree. A young girl (Rat’s Kerry Condon), brought to town by a matchmaker, uses confession to grill the priest (Pat Laffan) about her new fiancé, whom she doesn’t think she has yet seen. It is definitely a sign of the times that there was a discernable murmur and chuckle from the audience when the priest replies, a bit shyly, “Oh, he’s a fine looking lad.”

On an unrelated note, I was happy to get a second viewing of the Undertones rockumentary, Teenage Kicks. I have to say that the group and its music have grown on me. And, given the cynical commercialism of so much American and British pop, there is something wonderful about hearing these guys 20 years on still sounding down-to-earth and amazed and grateful that they were actually able to become rock stars for a while.

It was a few days later that I learned that someone close to the Undertones had actually joined us for the screening. One of my fellow volunteers, James, who is way more connected to and knowledgeable about all kinds of music than I am, happened to mention nonchalantly that Steve Mack had been there. Seattle native Mack was the lead singer for a band called That Petrol Emotion, which Undertone guitarist/keyboardist Damian O’Néill joined after the Undertones broke up. Apparently, Mack heard about the Undertones movie, stopped by to watch (and see himself and his band on screen), and then left without drawing any attention to himself or being spotted by anyone. Except, of course, the eagle-eyed James.

-S.L., 14 March 2002

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