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Non-Review Review: Stella Days

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2012.

Stella Days is held together by a sterling performance from Martin Sheen and a boldly challenging look at the Irish cultural mentality. Indeed, it’s easy to read this tale of a small-town parish priest trying to build a cinema as a metaphor for Irish cultural philosophy. In particular, with its distinctly American star, Thaddeus O’Sullivan’s movie seems like a bold challenge to what might be deemed Irish cultural xenophobia, the notion that our culture must be distinctly and completely independent of the world around us. Instead, Stella Days rather boldly and romantically suggests that Irish culture is not defined by independence or autonomy, but by its willingness to engage and accept the world around us. While the movie might occasionally indulge in a bit too much sentiment, it’s hard not to like that sort of uplifting and engaging idea.

I must confess, this was quite good...

The movie is set in an interesting part of our nation’s cultural history, about in the middle of DeValera’s domination of national politics, while the church still held undisputed authority and it seemed like the country was divided not into counties, but into parishes. Of course, modernisation was slowly eeking its way into these rural hamlets, but not without resistance. Stoic forces of cultural conservatism undoubtedly condemned the spread of electricity and the conveniences that it brought along. Stella Days presents us with a rural Ireland where the very act of turning on a light switch is the solemn duty of the parish priest.

The movie skilfully captures that quirky Irish conservatism. When our lead character, Father Daniel Barry, finds himself fundraising for a new church, the locals suggest he would have had more luck if he had joined the local GAA. When the new primary school teacher arrives from Dublin, the local politician seeks to coopt him into “the party.” Characters attempt to assert the dreary and boring art work of a truly independent Ireland, with the bishop recommending the stoicly conservative Arran of the Saints as the opening film in the new cinema. Movies are just “filth” being imported over from other countries, a form of cultural imperialism that many conservative minds see as not too different from the 800 years of British rule the nation had just emerged from.

Light at the end of the doorway...

Against this backdrop, Father Daniel attempts to convince his parish to build a cinema, where he can show American movies to help the village fend away the cold winter nights. It’s telling that the fears about the cinema all reflect the idea that the outside world might somehow creep in – not even American cultural values, but even those of neighbouring villages. The first reaction to the plan to erect the cinema disdainful references the nearby tiny rural village of Nenagh.

Of course, the movie then rather astutely observes that the technology and culture we’re so reluctant to engage with is actually well out of date in those other countries. A returning emigrant assures the village that film is dead, and that they’re closing up shop in London. Television is where it’s at, or so we’re told. In the best line of the film, he proudly boasts, “Seventeen inches!” Of course, cinema isn’t really dead, and the movie has several laughs about the current state of the nation, but there’s some very solid points made underneath the charming and engaging exterior.

A man cannot live on bread alone...

That’s a very bold and challenging outlook, and I think that it works because it’s somewhat true. I think, culturally, we have a tendency to dismiss the work that we do that relies on or feeds into the wider world, instead insisting that we define ourselves rigidly by our own customs and traditions, that the state fund smaller Irish films. I am quite happy to claim international works like Father Ted and In Bruges as among the finest Irish pop culture achievements of the last few decades, and both were produced by Irish writers with foreign money in foreign locations. Stella Days argues for the same sort of open-mindedness, not only within the narrative, but outside it as well.

After all, Martin Sheen might have an Irish passport, but one can very clearly detect his American accent at play beneath the soft Irish syllables. It’s explained that his character spent some time in America. In a telling line, the bishop remarks that he spent time in “Hollywood.” Of course, Father Daniel didn’t spend any time on the West Coast at all, studying in Washington. Of course, it’s all “Hollywood” to those sort of close-minded individuals. This is a community where everybody longs to hear prayers in Latin because they sound exotic or official, and where the villagers look down on their parish priest for having travelled the world, living in Rome and the United States. “An Irish parish is not penance,” the bishop suggests, but it seems pretty close.

Bless you...

Sheen’s performance really carries the film, which is a deftly-observed, yet relatively conventional, story about a conflict of cultures. Even when the script doesn’t give him a lot to work with, Sheen is able to skilfully convey a wonderful depth of feeling. Without being burdened with too much exposition, you are never unaware of what Father Daniel is thinking. This does raise some problems of itself, with Sheen’s emotive performance rendering the flashbacks to his childhood null and void. Cliché would advise us to show rather than tell, but it’s far more affecting to hear Sheen deliver lines about how he came to be a priest, instead of actually watching the almost-whited-out flashbacks.

Indeed, if the movie has a weakness, it’s an over-reliance on sentimentality. There’s enough romanticism to be found in the plot and in Sheen’s portrayal, without adding other factors to it. The young child who Father Daniel befriends, Joseph, sees a tad unnecessary – playing out a fairly standard “where’s my daddy?” plotline. In fact, the character’s plotline is never explicitly resolved. It serves to spur Father Daniel’s emotional arc to its conclusion, but we never get to find out what happened to Joseph.

Father figure...

There are some strange moments that don’t really work. There’s a conversation between Father Daniel and Tim in a classroom that lays out rather obvious points of comparison between Ireland of the fifties and the present day.”The country just lacks confidence,” Tim assures the priest, as they discuss the nature of country politics and even the economy. It’s just a little bit heavy-handed, and distracts from the more subtle and nuanced commentary that the film makes.

Stella Days is a fine piece of Irish cinema, with an impressive central performance from Martin Sheen. While it might be a little bit too coy or sweet for its own good, it’s very hard to dislike the film and it raises some very astute observations about the nature of Irish culture. Well worth a look for those who love Ireland, or even those who love cinema.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 3

4 Responses

  1. I will look forward to this one. The title puts me off. I assumed it was about fashion design (Stella McCartney) and it now seems that it’s about Ireland (a good thing) and with Martin Sheen (another good thing). So I am puzzled. Why is it called “Stella Days”? Or do I have to see the movie to find out the answer? You’ve written another intelligent and thought-provoking review!

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