Now in its 14th year, the Capital Irish Film Festival at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center is a terrific opportunity to see films that are too modest for an ordinary theatrical release. This year’s slate includes comedies, dramas, documentaries, and even an intense thriller. With one notable exception—a film by Irish filmmakers set in the Middle East—what unites them is how they showcase the full humanity of the Irish people. They are tough without being mean, forgiving without being saccharine. Quiet, deadpan humor is never far from their lips. These films vary in quality, and yet they are almost all a welcome reprieve from the D.C. grind.
Extra OrdinaryFor a film about ghosts and demonic possession, Extra Ordinary is surprisingly warm-hearted. Directors Mike Ahern and Enda Loughman strike a tone that is difficult to maintain, leading to a comedy that takes its supernatural premise seriously.
Rose (Maeve Higgins) is a mild-mannered driving instructor in a small town. She wants to put her past behind her, since she worked with her father as a medium and has the ability to see ghosts, most of whom mind their own business. Martin (Barry Ward) needs Rose’s help because his daughter appears to be possessed. This is because of Christian (Will Forte), an American pop singer who struck a deal with a demon. If he sacrifices a virgin, Christian’s new album will be a smashing success.
Extra Ordinary is matter-of-fact about its subject. Rose does not treat her ability as a curse, but as a another mundane part of her daily life. This leads to a wry sense of comedy, as the matter-of-fact delivery and bizarre subject matter are incongruous. While American audiences know Forte for his over-the-top comic antics, Higgins is the film’s MVP.
This is a film that never loses its nerve. Most high concept comedies lose their way by the ending, so it’s a minor miracle Extra Ordinary clicks right after a demon makes an appearance.
Extra Ordinary screens on Feb. 28 at 7:30 p.m.
Shooting the DarknessThe press photographers in Shooting the Darkness did not look for a tough assignment. One of them quips that he was used to county fairs, or taking snapshots of celebrities when they rolled through town. Once the Troubles began in Northern Ireland, they had no choice but to depict what happened on the front line of a bitter dispute.
Director Tom Burke uses interviews and stock footage to recreate the violence around Belfast in the late 20th century. The photographers discuss one attack after another. Burke implies that some disassociation is necessary: They need to think about the shot, even when depicting a dead body, so they cannot be concerned with respect for the situation. That’s the irony of being a war photographer. They lose their empathy so a wider audience can empathize with what the picture shows.
Shooting the Darkness unfolds like a segment you might catch on 60 Minutes. When the subject is that good, it is sometimes best to stand aside and let the interviewees speak for themselves.
Shoot the Darkness screens on March 1 at 5 p.m.
Cumar: A Galway RhapsodyLocated on Ireland’s West Coast, Galway is a charming city with a thriving community of artists and young people. It is a college town, so the population is always in flux, and that quality leads to bittersweet nostalgia for the writers and musicians in Cumar: A Galway Rhapsody. It is difficult to mourn the loss of a city’s character when that character is always changing.
A significant chunk of this documentary is in Irish. The artists in Cumar prefer that native tongue—singer Róisín Seoighe makes it sound beautiful and ethereal—since its preservation means the city’s heritage lives that much longer.
There is a meandering, quality to this documentary. Director Aodh Ó Coileáin follows creative locals as they ruminate on their city. Mostly, they focus on what Galway means to them. There is not much structure here, so the film unfolds like a collage, not traditional nonfiction.
We hear a poem or a song for a while, then the camera drifts toward someone else. There are snippets of conversations that must have happened over decades, while a street festival suggests the city’s character is not entirely lost.
Cumar: A Galway Rhapsody screens on March 1 at 7 p.m.
The DigThere is an admirably austere quality to The Dig, a dark drama that slowly morphs into a thriller. Its broken characters rarely say what they are feeling, which makes the uneasy alliance between them all the more involving. Although the high melodrama ultimately betrays the deliberate middle section, this is a film that takes themes of redemption and forgiveness seriously.
Moe Dunford plays Ronan, a lonely man who returns home after a long prison sentence. He was convicted for murdering a young woman in the small town where he lives. Something strange greets him on the sprawling bog adjacent to his home: flags all over the ground. They were put there by the girl’s father Sean (Lorcan Cranitch), who is desperate to find her body—Ronan does not know where he buried her because he killed her in a drunken rage. Sean has been trying to relocate her remains for the entirety of Ronan’s sentence.
A strange relationship forms between Ronan and Sean. Ronan grabs a shovel, offering to help, knowing full well that he is a monster who does not deserve forgiveness. But he wants Sean off his property, and this is the fastest way to accomplish that. Ronan’s return also rekindles wounds that have never healed, and a local policeman (Francis Magee) is eager to humiliate him further.
The inward, coiled rage of the performances give The Dig a fascinating edge. The resolution for this quest is a little too convenient, mostly because there are so few characters in the film. But for a while, anyway, there is an intense depth of feeling between characters who work together out of mutual need, not because they like each other.
The Dig screens on Feb. 28 at 5 p.m. and Feb. 29 at 9:20 p.m.
A Bump Along the WayA Bump Along the Way is a clever inversion of wry dramas like Juno, except the dialogue is nowhere as idiosyncratic. This film is the kind of crowd-pleaser that’s perfect in a festival setting, and will have audiences chatting about its quiet charms long after it’s over.
The bump refers to pregnancy, and Pamela (Bronagh Gallagher) did not see it coming. She is in her mid-40s, for one thing, and she has an angst-ridden teen daughter, Allegra (Lola Petticrew), at home. Allegra hates her mother because she is a drunk who shirks all her responsibilities. The baby is a wake-up call, and the film follows Pamela’s path toward reconciliation and newfound maturity.
Gallagher has been a character actor for decades, so it is great to see her in a juicy role with a lot of nuance. Pamela is no saint, and it is heart-warming to watch her find reserves of wisdom while staying true to herself. There is also a thoughtful subplot involving Allegra’s life at school, where she is bullied—they live in a small town, so everyone knows each other’s business. Director Shelly Love wisely avoids theatrics, or big explosive scenes.
If you are a fan of the Netflix series Derry Girls, then A Bump Along the Way is right up your alley. It is refreshing to see a film about working class women that never condescends toward its characters. These characters inch toward empathy and understanding in ways that are always organic, without any storytelling shortcuts.
A Bump Along the Way screens on Feb. 27 at 7:15 p.m.
GazaThis documentary is unique among the rest of the films in this festival: It does not take place in Ireland. Instead, Irish filmmakers Garry Keane and Andrew McConnell spend their film entirely in the Gaza strip. It is only 25 miles long and few miles wide but so many live there in poverty.
Gaza begins with a slice of life approach, only to become more acutely aware of ongoing violence as it continues. We follow mild-mannered, ordinary people as they go about their day, discussing their hopes and dreams. Sometimes Gaza looks stunning, particularly when Keane and McConnell shoot on the coastline, but most of it looks like a hollowed out war zone.
The relatively tranquil character portraits ultimately seem like a fleeting illusion. More violence creeps its way into the lives of these people, with Israelis bombarding the city, to the point where you see on-the-ground reactions to explosions and rocket attacks. Some of the interviewees are severely injured in the violence. Gaza wisely avoids any sermonizing or calls to action, and instead serves as an unwavering depiction of cinematic empathy.
Gaza screens on March 1 at 1 p.m.
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