Last year’s Capital Irish Film Festival was one of the last vestiges of movie-going normalcy in the Washington area. In late February and early March of 2020, fans of movies and Irish culture had the opportunity to explore films of all genres from the Emerald Isle before theaters closed. This year’s festival is a little bit different, but Solas Nua and the American Film Institute remain committed to offering Ireland’s best just in time for St. Patrick’s Day. The 2021 Capital Irish Film Festival is entirely virtual, and individual and all-access passes are available online from March 4 through 14. As always, the fest offers an impressive variety of films that should accommodate anyone’s taste.
The Great Famine wasn’t attributable to a potato blight alone; Irish tenant farmers had struggled under the harsh conditions of British landlords for decades. The violent historical drama Arracht illustrates how bad things got, to the point that the film resembles something almost post-apocalyptic.
Colmán (Dónall Ó Héalaí) is farmer and fisherman who toils in County Galway with his wife and daughter. He lives in poverty, but with dignity, at least until he welcomes a former soldier named Patsy (Dara Devaney) into his home. Patsy was traumatized by his time serving the British—he hates their army to his core—and he seems to bring the famine with him. Colmán confronts his English landlord about his failing crops and unfair prices, and this encounter ends with horrific violence. When we see Colmán a year later, he is emaciated and desperate, a husk of his former self.
This is a grim, humorless film, but the screenplay by Tom Sullivan includes enough details and glimmers of hope to make us curious about what happens next. Director Tomás Ó Súilleabháin does not dwell on violence, and instead follows Colmán’s cautious entry back toward humanity. A girl named Kitty (Saise Ní Chuinn) awakens his fatherly instinct, and the film becomes somewhat conventional as he develops into a father figure.
Ireland submitted Arracht—the Irish word for “monster”—for this year’s Best Foreign Film Academy Award. Indeed, only a fraction of the film is in English, and the lyrical Irish language only deepens the sense of loss. The English and the famine did more than decimate a country’s population. They nearly robbed the people of their culture; this film is a faint battle cry and a refusal to give up just yet. Available starting March 4 at 9 a.m.
Not to be confused with The Pogues‘ song of a similar name, Boys from County Hell is a deadpan horror comedy that finds interesting ways to upend genre tropes. It’s a supernatural film that takes place in a somewhat realistic place, and it dismantles clichés instead of riffing on them.
Bram Stoker was born outside Dublin, and this film unfolds in the town supposedly where he grew up. A pub called The Stoker capitalizes on this idea, and there, locals rub elbows with tourists curious about the gimmick. Eugene (Jack Rowan) and his friend William (Fra Fee) ultimately discover there is more to the legend than a story passed from generation to generation when a mysterious force somehow infects William, and he becomes something like a zombie/vampire hybrid that terrorizes the whole town.
Chris Baugh creates tension by asking practical questions. If a vicious vampire with superhuman strength was running amok, how exactly would you kill it? What would happen if all the traditional methods—like sunlight or a stake through the heart—didn’t work? This leads to bizarre humor, since Eugene and the others barely comprehend their situation, although there is also a sense of tragedy. In their grief, William’s parents struggle to internalize this creature is not their son.
Boys from County Hell is not too scary, although its quasi-realism has a way of lulling the audience so when the scares do come, they land with an added shock. By the time the conflict resolves—involving one of the more inspired gross-out gags in recent memory—the film shows what can be accomplished when actors, writers, and directors avoid genre autopilot. Available starting March 6 at 9 a.m.
If you ever listened to a classic rock radio or satellite station, then you’ve heard Thin Lizzy. Songs like “The Boys Are Back in Town” and “Jailbreak” are pop culture staples, to the point where they instantly convey a specific, recognizable mood. But Thin Lizzy are more than one hit wonders, and Phil Lynott: Songs for While I’m Away is a thoughtful documentary about its charismatic leading man.
Before U2 or The Cranberries, Thin Lizzy were Ireland’s rock and roll ambassadors. But Phil Lynott was Black, disrupting the lazy stereotype of a “typical Irishman,” and the early sections focus on how being Black in Ireland influenced his life. Director Emer Reynolds follows Lynott’s life through impressive archival footage, followed by interviews with Lynott’s friends and colleagues. The most famous interviewees are Huey Lewis, U2’s Adam Clayton, and Metallica’s James Hetfield.
The film goes on to argue that Lynott was more than a conventional rock star. He was a poet at heart, and all on-stage bravado only came through practice. This is a fawning documentary, although it earns its deference to its subject because Lynott never got the same recognition as his peers, or those he influenced.
Lynott’s life ended at 36, after a long struggle with addiction. What he left behind, aside from adoring fans and family who remember him at his best, is an impressive catalog of rock and pop songs. Whether you’re a new fan or know all the deep cuts, Songs for While I’m Away effectively argues this accomplished songwriter—along with his singular voice—was a once-in-a-generation talent. Available starting March 5 at 9 a.m.
Directed with breezy confidence by Kieron J. Walsh, The Racer is a fictionalized account of doping in the world of professional cycling. The 1998 Tour de France started in Dublin and coincided with a doping scandal, and the film dramatizes those events in a way that mixes a sports drama with a thriller.
Louis Talpe plays Dom, a Belgian cyclist who is part of a competitive international team. He’s pushing forty, so he is the team’s “domestique,” a workhorse who maintains a good position on the course for when the lead rider attacks for the top position. Doping is already common among Dom and his teammates: Led by their charismatic coach Sonny (Iain Glen), the team secretly partake in blood transfusions to improve their performance. But that is only one facet of what befalls this team, since their star rider is a prima donna and the physical demands are still overwhelming.
Like the baseball classic Bull Durham, The Racer demystifies the sacrifices of professional athletics. These men have devoted their lives and bodies to the sport, to the point where they no longer have an opportunity for anything else. The glory of victory is ephemeral, and each leg of the race unfolds like a hard day at work, rather than a thrilling competition (the racing scenes are convincingly staged, with dozens of riders filling the frame at once). Dom understands these realities better than anyone, which is how he is able to rationalize doping as a means to an end.
The tension of The Racer is not whether Dom or his teammates will be exposed, or even if Dom will finally win the day. Instead, this is a sad film about the limits of the body and the rationalizations we can make when we sacrifice our integrity. Walsh casts little judgment about what he depicts in the film, although the implications of his final shot have staggering implications for the inevitable reckoning the sport must face. Available starting March 6 at 9 a.m.
There are few great documentaries about artists. Filmmakers opt for broad strokes, focusing on their influence more than their process or inspiration. Tomorrow Is Saturday, a documentary about collage artist Seán Hillen, is more intriguing than some, because it is also a detailed portrait of a man dealing with mental illness and economic hardship.
Hillen became famous in the 1980s because of how he depicted The Troubles. Rather than simply document civil unrest and brutality, Hillen would augment his photography with surrealist imagery, which gave emotional heft to how it felt during that period. Although his work fell out of favor, art historians see him as a pivotal figure.
Influence doesn’t pay the bills, so most of Tomorrow Is Saturday follows Hillen in the present as he tries to find an effective business model. He does not have a patron, and he sells his work at open air markets. Artists are rarely frank about this aspect of their career, and Hillen’s openness—about everything in his life—is refreshing. Hillen has Asperger’s syndrome, and he is keenly aware of its effect on his daily life, including his interests and quirks—for example, he shows how his obsession over one type of object can unearth new ways to look at it.
Tomorrow Is Saturday includes more narrative structure than a typical documentary. Hillen preps for his girlfriend to visit—he met her online, and they’ve never spent time in person—and tries to curb his hoarding tendencies. This is all part of a larger attempt to salvage his career, and Tomorrow Is Friday ends with an ironic note of hope, one whose source is not what you might expect. Available starting March 5 at 9 a.m.