Thursday, June 21, 2012

Stella Days: A Reluctant Irish Country Priest

This is the story of the picture house Father Daniel Barry built.  He is supposed to be raising money for a new church, but his salt-of-the-earth parishioners are rather stingy donors.  However, a legitimate movie theater would bring in a steady flow of ticket receipts to fund the construction efforts.  Frankly, the good Father does not really want a new church anyway in Thaddeus O’Sullivan’s Stella Days (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York (and is already available on-demand from Tribeca Films).

Father Barry would rather be in Rome and he never bothered to hide his feelings from his flock.  Transferred back to Ireland as punishment for a bit of a personal spat with Vatican colleagues, the priest’s anticipated return to Rome has been postponed for the sake of the parish capital drive.  Father Barry would hardly seem to be the man for the job, but his passion for cinema and friendship with Tim Lynch, the comparatively cosmopolitan new school teacher, inspire his vision for The Stella Theater.  It obviously complicates the overall plan considerably, but the good Father can get behind efforts to build a neighborhood cinema much more readily.

In the mid 1950’s, electrification was still quite new in rural hamlets like Father Barry’s parish.  In fact, the priest is the town’s leading advocate for all that new fangled technology.  Indeed, the priest is the progressive in this period piece.  His Bishop—not so much.  However, sourpuss politician Brendan McSweeney is the real thorn is the Father’s side.  McSweeney’s pressure and a scandal involving Lynch and the technically still married woman he boards with hasten Father Barry’s simmering crisis of faith.

Frankly, McSweeney’s judgmental villainy is rather shopworn stuff by now.  The hiss-able social conservative actually represents a rare off-par performance from the normally reliable Stephen Rea.  Finding nothing human in the character, Rea seems to be going through the dastardly motions simply to advance the plot.

In contrast, Father Daniel Barry, as played by Martin Sheen, is a different matter entirely.  Though the character could have easily descended into an unfortunate Catholic stereotype, Days presents his internal conflicts in the sympathetic tradition of Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest.  Sheen’s sensitive turn clearly suggests parish priesthood has tremendous value and Father Barry’s snowballing doubts simply make him human and fully dimensional.

Aside from the serpentine McSweeney, Stella Days is a considerably restrained film.  Despite its love for cinema, O’Sullivan never relies on stereotypical shots of audience staring in wide-eyed wonder at the flickering images on the screen.  Nor is Father Barry’s struggle with his calling in any way cheap or demeaning.  Lynch is even an Artie Shaw fan, which shows some taste. 

An appropriately muted looking period production, Stella Days rarely takes the easy way out, making it a legitimately humanistic portrait of an Irish country priest.  Recommended for patrons of Irish film and those interested in its themes of Catholicism and cinema’s role in society, Stella Days opens tomorrow (6/22) in New York at the Quad Cinema.