Review for Film Ireland - original post - Friday, April 07, 2006
DIR/WRI: Peter Lennon • PROD: Victor Herbert • DOP: Raoul Coutard • ED: Lila Bird
What do you do with your revolution? I have long been aware of the almost mythical status of Peter Lennon's Rocky Road to Dublin and like almost everyone had seen the Father Michael Cleary excerpts around the time of that particular clerical scandal (now it seems a mere innocent indiscretion). As with any film that has been trumpeted in advance I approached it with some trepidation - almost expecting to be dissappointed. I wasn't. This film is, I feel, both an important, evocative document of an Ireland that has passed away, and a starting point for an examination of Ireland today. Watching it while the continued clerical control of the National Schools has finally become the subject of Dáil debate it seems that we have hardly changed.
Indeed with a Taoiseach living in the shadows of All Hallows there is the potential to put together montages at least as damning as the procession of images of Ireland's civil leaders of the late sixties side by side with her religious leaders at event after event. In Paul Duane's "Making of" which accompanies the film on DVD there is a point where Peter Lennon asks a schoolboy in front of his old school a question from the catechism and the boy responds blankly. This compares with the way in which the schoolboys of the late sixties respond as they show a great familiarity with the long convoluted answers. This, says Peter Lennon, is a 'good thing'. And I agree with him - the questions and their answers brought back up shadows from the back of my memory which were not pleasant. However, the constrictions placed on these kids in the classroom are contrasted by the wonderful footage of children on the street and, in one case, in a river. They chase around in wild anarchic fashion, free and unfettered. The streets are their domain. How pale-faced and joyless would similar footage appear today. The streets belong to the car and children are largely ferried around from interior to interior. In one magnificent sequence we see schoolchildren rushing towards and around the camera laughing, smiling and swaggering; they look confident and energetic enough to change a nation. And they did. And in another sequence of churchgoers congregating for Sunday mass the whole solemnity is dissipated by the foreground activities of two sets of children, who pass by close to the camera.The camerawork by Raoul Coutard is fresh and original. Clearly Godard and the French New Wave owed a lot to his eye and technique. In one fabulous sequence at a trad session the action is punctuated by pans to glasses full, emptying, and empty. The self medication of an Irish people who are more conservative and oppressed than they are prepared to admit is high lit beautifully. And this is the core of the film - it is a personal political essay highlighting how the Irish revolution was lost somewhere, with the 'poets and socialists' killed almost before the whiff of cordite had dissipated. Lennon (a Paris-based journalist with the Guardian at the time) says that his inspiration was how his friends kept telling him that things had changed in the 'modern' Ireland of the time, how nobody paid any attention to the censor or the clergy. He sees it differently and shows it too. The opening statements are clear and backed up by Sean O'Faoilain's thoughts which open the film. O'Faolain notes that we were (are?) "a society without moral courage, constantly observing a self-interested silence, never speaking in moments of crisis and in constant alliance with an obscurantist, repressive, regressive and uncultivated church."Censorship is one of the key elements of Irish society which is targeted by Lennon. As well as an often self contradictory interview with a member of the censorship appeals board, we get a bell tolling as a credit-roll of some authors who have had work censored is scrolled down the screen. The company is so good it feels like anyone who didn't make this particular roll of (dis)honour must have done something wrong. The infamous case of John McGahern is mentioned, nicely tying together the issues of censorship and clerical control of the schools. McGahern, a schoolteacher, was sacked by the local Parish Priest when The Dark was banned by the censor. The story of how the film played at Cannes in '68 just before Godard pulled the plug on the festival, and how the film was 'buried' for its official screening at the Cork Film Festival, makes the Making Of an interesting document in itself. It is a great story of a film which was lost but found again. Rocky Road to Dublin deserves its place in the canon of great Irish films. Take a risk on being disappointed by something which is flagged too enthusiastically and rent.or buy the DVD or track down a cinema screening of this resurrected gem.The DVD is released by Soda Pictures.