It is so easy to see members of the clergy and strip them of their humanity. So easy to see a man of the cloth and snicker from afar and allow cynicism to root around in the light of day. I wasn’t raised Catholic (though my mother was), but I was raised to respect the clergy, even if I have, from time to time, forgotten that lesson for reasons valid and not.
Always looking at them with respect, with cynicism, with indifference, but never with curiosity — I never bothered, really, to think of these dedicated few as anything more than an aparatus for God, faith, and the words holy. No curiosity about their choices or their sacrifices. They were overly afflicted with faith, counselors, teachers, pillars of their communities, and that was that. This is not, I imagine, a foreign concept to many of you, and yet STELLA DAYS ignores those fences and examines not a Priest, but a man wrapped within the sometimes suffocating cloth of his sacred job.
Now, that description sounds as if this should be viewed as a controversial movie, or a powder keg. But in truth, STELLA DAYS is merely a gentle tale that cooks slowly (sometimes distressingly so), and exists as a story about our natural suspicion and fixation on that which we do not know, and our grief over that which we never got the chance to explore.
This isn’t a statement movie per se, but rather, it is an examination of 1950s Ireland and those institutions that we cling too because we are told that we must. This isn’t a film that stands against religion, it stands against oppressive religion and the way that religion sometimes lets us down, especially when our faith is hollow or forced upon us.
Directed by Thaddeus O’Sullivan and written by Antoine O’Flatharta from Michael Doorley’s memoir of the same name, this very Irish film takes us to a small, grey town in Ireland and the flock of Father Daniel Berry (Martin Sheen), an “intellectual” who is in a sort of exile from Rome thanks to his bountiful pride and his displeasure over losing a job within the Vatican.
From the start, we can see that Father Berry longs for an escape and a return to his beloved Rome — an escape that is quickly shot down by his Bishop, played by Tom Hickey. Bishop Hegarty’s distaste for Father Berry is subtle, but clear — he resents Father Berry’s ambition, his light but present disdain for his current post, and the time he spent in the United States, which may as well be labeled Sodom for the way the Bishop repeatedly brings it up.
Dejected and tasked with coaxing money from the wallets of his poor congregation to build a needless new church, Father Berry returns, still friendly and accessible, but also distracted by doubts and the memories of how he came to join the church.
The film is uplifted, and it’s slow pace quickened by the arrival of a young teacher named Tim who strikes up a friendship with Father Berry based on their mutual intellectual curiosity and love of film. Played confidently by Trystan Gravelle, Tim takes a room with Molly (Marcella Plunkett) and her son Joey, and soon causes the young, abandoned mother to question her vow to an absentee husband.
It is important to note that all of this is happening as the town begins to literally see the light. Electricity and modern convenience are coming to them and while some clamor for this appliance and the next appliance, others are put off by the thought that innovation may lead to damnation. Specifically, Stephen Rea‘s disappointingly one dimensional character Brendan, a town elder who rises to greater power and does his best to make his distaste for Father Berry more than evident in the way that he seeks to embarrass the priest and derail his plans to start a picture show in town.
This idea that started with Tim and Father Berry, this idea that the cinema can show the townsfolk a world beyond their grasp is at the center of the film. This tug of war for their “hearts and minds” as the Bishop puts it while standing, mostly, opposed to the theater save for the times he hears the jingle of change.
Father Berry’s belief in the ability of these films to civilize, and his belief in The Stella, the theater he is committed to building, runs strong, once again causing a fit of pride and a crisis of faith when his project is challenged and member of his congregation passes away without him by her side. Barbara Adair, in a charming, low key performance, is absolutely vital as a woman who is comforted by faith but not served by it, a woman who cries wolf and receives the last rites more times than most others but one fewer time than she needed.
Her faith was about fear, Father Berry realizes while also concluding the origin and shape of his own faith, and her final appearance stirs Father Berry and points us toward the films conclusion.
Speaking of small but crucial roles, Joey O’Sullivan, as Molly’s son and a reminder to Father Berry of himself at a young age and also the power of his council, steals the film with his conviction and the quiet way he processes a changing world around him that is filled with disappointment.
As I said, this is a gentle film, quick with a runtime of only 87 minutes, and affecting thanks to the exceptional cast and the naturalistic script. Martin Sheen is, as always, a joy to behold, allowing us a peak in at his sadness and the conflict swirling within him without ringing a bell or carrying a sign. It’s a performance of subtlety, one that rewards us for paying attention.
Sheen’s career has recently been filled by roles like this (THE WAY is another example) — roles that downplay the swagger and the lion’s roar that he is capable of. There is confidence there but it is delivered unto us with a whisper and a glance. I forgot I was watching Martin Sheen while watching STELLA DAYS, and that is craftsmanship, and probably the best thing you can say about an actor.
I highly recommend this film and give it a solid B+, with points lost for the occasionally boring pace and the under-use of Stephen Rea, who could have been more than a slightly cartoonish black hat.
STELLA DAYS is available on VOD June 20, 2012 and it will, itself, illuminate a theater during it’s run at the Quad Cinemas in New York, beginning June 22nd.