Friday, March 5, 2010

DVDebut: Peter Lennon's ROCKY ROAD TO DUBLIN arrives via Icarus Films

Ireland of a half-century past is the subject of the newly restored and unmissable (if you have any interest in that country then and now) documentary ROCKY ROAD TO DUBLIN, made by a then-young filmmaker named Peter Lennon.  Since 1968 when the film was first seen -- to much acclaim, at Cannes -- Mr. Lennon appears to have made his living somewhere other than in the world of film, as his IMDB profile is, well, short.  No matter. This single work of his (so far, at least: He says he wants to return to film-making) will remain important to Ireland, and to the art of the documentary.

What surprises TrustMovies most about this 69-minute film is how full of energy it is, how alert and alive it -- and everyone in it -- seem.   RR2D is also full of insight, some of this rather sad, considering how much and how little seem to have changed for the country in the course of the 40-plus years since filming took place.  Lennon gives us a good dose of Irish history from the decades prior to the 1960s and then shows us Irish life -- the poor, the gentry, the middle class; and the changing face of culture, politics, youth, women and the church. 

Lennon, affectionate but also stern and incisive, focuses at length on Irish censorship and how this stifles creativity, continually causing the best of the country's artists to depart its shores.  We hear at length from one of its censors, a clearly troubled old man who tries to foresee the coming changes but can barely wrap his mind around them.

One of the things that helps the documentary remain timely is its look at what happens when church and state grow far too cozy. When that church in question is Irish Catholic, troubles just seem to mount.  Of course, as we see, the church itself was trying to change back in the 60s, and so we find ourselves confronted with a relatively young priest (above) and his quietly presumptive ego who sings soft rock and folk songs to entertain his parishioners.  But when he rambles on at length about marriage and the like, we also understand how little the church philosophy has really changed.  (But wait: What we learn about this fellow in "The Making of" documentary that accompanies the film does change our view considerably -- though not necessarily for the better.)

Feminism, Irish version at least, if not on the rise at this time was nonetheless beginning to bud.  We hear the voice of a young married woman trying to explain herself as she wrestles with her own needs as well as those of her husband, the church and that oh-so-reliable means of birth control: the withdrawal method. Lennon speedily mixes old newsreels and photos with talking heads and scenes of life being lived in the bars and dance halls.  It's a heady concoction, ensuring that our attention never flags. And then it's over, the final splendid scene being one of Irish children running and running toward....  the future, perhaps?

The cinematographer of this little gem is none other than the great Frenchman Raoul Coutard, who does a fine job of capturing the moment, up-close or distanced.  How Coutard came to shoot the film is part of what makes The Making of (shot by Paul Duane) that accompanies the main feature such a treat.  The history of RR2D is very nearly as interesting as the film itself, and Lennon and Coutard reunite to reminisce about the movie and its debut and Cannes and elsewhere. (Coutard's remarks about giving up smoking are hilarious and explain perhaps why his fruitful collaboration with François Truffaut suddenly ended.)

Not being Irish, if you'd asked me prior to watching the movie and its companion piece, if I had any interest in it, I'd have probably said no. Don't you make that same mistake. Rocky Road to Dublin -- which made its DVD debut this week from Icarus Films -- is one whopping good piece of documentary film-making, not to mention an amazing time-capsule of a people and an era.  You can purchase it from Icarus itself or from Amazon, and soon, I hope, rent it from your favorite video source (as of this writing, Netflix lists it as "Saved: release date unknown").

All photos courtesy of Icarus Films, and yes, 
that last one is indeed John Huston, 
photographed while in Ireland making a film 
and telling the Irish why they should be making their own films.

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