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John, the protagonist of Foscadh, also screening at this week’s Capital Irish Film Festival, does not understand the pain that befalls him. He suffers from an affliction that writer-director Seán Breathnach, adapting a novel by Donal Ryan, declines to articulate. Does John have an undiagnosed learning disability? Or perhaps he lacks the necessary experience to handle the world outside his home? Either way, his parents did little to prepare him for life after they’re gone. Breathnach depicts John’s foray into adulthood with constant inscrutability, focusing primarily on how he lacks the wherewithal to understand kindness, mistreatment, and everything in between. The purity of this approach is admirable, albeit a little frustrating, since the main character’s internality is obscure for most of the film.
When we first meet John (Dónall Ó Héalai), there are immediate examples of his unusual behavior. He comes home from a menial job to find his mother dead on the floor, but doesn’t call emergency services right away. He stares at her body, and while we do not understand what he feels, the actor contorts his face just enough to make the audience curious. The off-kilter behavior doesn’t stop there: At his mother’s funeral, John leaves the service to masturbate in the bathroom.
There are multiple ways to interpret these choices—maybe he’s looking for an emotional release, or acts compulsively—but all that becomes secondary after a vicious attack leaves him in the hospital. In the throes of convalescing, John meets two people who shape his future: a vulgar fellow patient named Dave (Cillian O’Gairbhi), and Siobhán (Fionnuala Flaherty), a nurse who pities him.
Once John leaves the hospital and embarks on a romantic relationship with Siobhán, as well as a friendship with Dave, Foscadh catalogs the pain that John has repressed his entire life. His desires are ordinary—he wants friendship, and some kind of romantic life, though he lacks the resources to achieve them. In John, Dave finds a buddy he can keep around as a kind of ego boost, whereas Siobhán, in a development that stretches the limits of believability, begins an intimate relationship with him. Perhaps she is sick of the Daves of the world, except Breathnach’s script denies her a fleshed-out explanation. This subplot does lead to the film’s emotional apex, a sex scene that becomes downright harrowing, and the path there requires a suspension of disbelief that is rarely found in character-driven drama.
Another more compelling subplot involves John’s future in more practical terms. He inherits a sizable plot of land from his parents; his neighbors pressure him to sell it because they want to build a wind farm there. John has little interest in wealth, which leads to a palpable sense of frustration among the neighbors, but the question of whether to sell does mean he must reckon with what his parents left—in physical as well as emotional terms. If John resents his newfound struggles as an independent adult, he lacks the ability to articulate them.
This storyline resolves in a predictable way, with John finding little flourishes of defiance and rebellion. As a young man who meanders toward something like normalcy, Ó Héalai adds some nuance through his performance, but beyond that Breathnach creates a bizarre incongruity. Natural light, economical editing, and a gray color palette suggest the film values realism, all in the service of a story that stretches the limits of what is plausible.
Foscadh, meaning “shelter,” is an Irish-language film, which deepens John’s sense of alienation. Few lines are spoken in English, and if John understands a second language (other than Irish), it is through television—one of his few reliable companions. In fact, the film contains multiple scenes with Dave, John, and Siobhán drinking beer while watching television, and all the excitement that entails. It is as if Breathnach stumbles into a paradox he cannot overcome. John’s life is full of tedium, and in order to show that tedium accurately, the film asks for considerable patience. In this particular example, the rewards do not match the demands, and while John’s final measure of happiness is hard-earned, it is difficult to share the feeling with him.
Foscadh screens at AFI Silver Theatre as part of the Capital Irish Film Festival on March 6 at 5:10 p.m. CIFF runs March 3–6 at AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center .$120, individual tickets also available. solasnua.org/ciff.