By Karen Kemmerle
Starring Martin Sheen and Stephen Rea, the film Stella Days is set in a small town in Ireland in the 1950s that is thrown into upheaval by the intrusion of the modern world. The advent of such conveniences as electricity, television, and water heaters engender a cultural crisis as the town struggles to hold on to its religious traditions and, indeed, its very identity. When Father Barry (Sheen), charged with the task of building a new church before he will be allowed to return to Rome, proposes opening a cinema, the town elders scoff at him. Disdainful of Father Barry’s years spent in America and his unusual methods, they refuse to let him bring his “Hollywood filth” into their town. Undaunted, Father Barry and the local teacher, Tim (Trystan Gravelle), begin to show films to willing congregation members. Ultimately, they bring about change in this close-minded, conservative town through movies that reveal the larger world.
In Stella Days, Martin Sheen gives a magnificent performance as Father Barry, a progressive priest whose wisdom and passion for cinema inspire those around him. Taking a cue from Father Barry, we thought it might be fun to look back at some archetypal movie priests of the Irish persuasion.
Winner of 7 Oscars (including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor), Going My Way features Bing Crosby as Father O’Malley, a young priest who has been sent to a new parish to help the aging Father Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald) deal with his crumbling parish. Unconventional in his appearance and approach, O’Malley breathes new life into the congregation, even managing to turn a group of troubled boys into the church choir. At first, Fitzgibbon, threatened by O’Malley’s innovations, clashes with the younger priest, but soon the two men become friends and save their church from financial ruin by putting on a concert and selling the rights to the song, “Going My Way.” Classic film moment: Bing crooning Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ral to a sleepy Barry Fitzgerald.
Featured in the Spotlight section of TFF 2009, Ondine is Neil Jordan’s version of a fairy tale. When Syracuse (Colin Farrell), the reformed town drunk-turned-fisherman, finds a beautiful woman (Alicja Bachleda) washed up in his fishing nets, he is reminded of the “selkie,” the Irish folklore equivalent of a mermaid. Determined to protect her, Syracuse and his precocious but sickly daughter take her in, but they soon notice a mysterious man tracking her. Syracuse’s one confidant is his local priest, played masterfully by that iconic Irishman Stephen Rea. The Priest supports and guides the young father as he struggles to care for his ill daughter and wrestles with his growing attraction to the mysterious Ondine. In true movie priest fashion, this Irish cleric offers patience and understanding rather than judgment and disdain.
In Boys Town, Spencer Tracy won an Oscar for his portrayal of the real life Father Flanagan, a priest so moved by a death row prisoner’s account of his troubled childhood that he creates a sanctuary for troubled youth called Boys Town. Determined to sustain this kind alternative to juvenile detention, Flanagan battles the legal system, societal coldness and even the boys themselves. His toughest case is Whitey Marsh (Mickey Rooney), a charismatic delinquent with a troubled past who constantly challenges Flanagan and his staff. Truly believing that “there is no such thing as a bad boy,” Flanagan, Irish priest extraordinaire, ultimately reforms Whitey and saves his beloved Boys Town.
When Sean Thornton (John Wayne) returns to his birthplace in Innisfree to reclaim his family farm, he is not prepared for a boisterous Irish town, full of local color and home to the fiery Danaher family. He falls in love with Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O’Hara) but runs afoul of her brother (Victor McLaglen), and the entire village must pitch in to help marry the two. As in most cinematic Irish villages, the local priest is a central figure, and it is Father Lonergan (Ward Bond) who marries the pair and provides counsel (in Gaelic!), though he seems more concerned about fly fishing and wagering than preparing sermons. The worldly Longeran provides Ford the chance to poke harmless fun at Irish priests, and Bond, with his thick but inconsistent brogue, hams it up with the best of them.
Angels with Dirty Faces, one of the seminal gangster films of the 1930s, is a cautionary tale of two childhood best friends, Rocky Sullivan (James Cagney) and Jerry Connolly (Pat O’Brien), who attempt to rob a railroad car. Rocky saves Jerry from capture and is sent to reform school. When he returns to the neighborhood years later, he discovers that Jerry has become the local priest who works to keep young men from becoming criminals. The boys in Jerry’s parish worship Rocky, and when Rocky, who becomes a gangster, is captured and sentenced to die, Jerry urges his boyhood friend to die like a coward so that the kids in the neighborhood won’t admire him. At first, Rocky refuses, but when he is hauled off screaming and crying to the electric chair, the audience knows he is doing Jerry’s bidding. Father Connelly admonishes the boys, “Say a prayer for a boy who couldn’t run as fast as I could.”
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