Quiet Irish girl attracts loud applause at 72nd Berlinale

An Cailín Ciúin made history as the first-ever Irish-language feature at the Berlin Film Festival

Bertolt Brecht once noted that the Finns have two languages – Finnish and Swedish – and were silent in both. He could have been talking about the Ireland of Colm Bairéad’s remarkable debut feature film.

With four rounds of applause and a few audible sniffles, An Cailín Ciúin (The Quiet Girl) made history last week as the first-ever Irish-language feature at the Berlin Film Festival.

With the festival now in its 72nd year, the pandemic was still apparent in vaccine certificate queues and limited cinema capacity, but organisers did a remarkable job bringing back some normality with a run of premieres and an honorary Golden Bear for Isabelle Huppert. The acting legend is also the star of a French-German-Irish co-production, About Joan, which premiered in Berlin, more of which later.

The best way to describe An Cailín Ciúin – screening next week on the opening night of the Dublin International Film Festival – is to use the German word Gesamtkunstwerk. Everything – performances, script, cinematography, editing and sound – blends to recreate an Ireland, barely out of sight, where children were not seen and certainly not heard.


An Cailín Ciúin is a welcome birthday present for TG4, celebrating its 25th birthday, and is set to be a winner for Screen Ireland

Directing his own script, based on Claire Keegan’s short story, Foster, Bairéad’s film tells the story of a young girl’s summer with a foster couple, away from her dysfunctional family.

While the traumatised people around her talk in English and Irish, careful to say nothing, Cáit remains largely silent and watchful. This is the Ireland of mass unemployment and emigration, hunger strikes, the Stardust tragedy – and the start of the campaign that will lead to Irish voters backing a constitutional ban on abortion.

Placing emotionally arid people in a beautifully-shot landscape, it would have been easy to make a film that bristles with anger or drowns in nostalgia. Instead Bairéad pulls right back, aching with empathy for familiar people in impossible situations: the defeated mother of too-many children, the feckless father re-enacting his own neglected childhood and the bystanders, anxious but ultimately helpless to intervene.

As a young father, born the year his film is set, Bairéad says he was moved to tears by Keegan’s story. As he read he could see, page by page, scenes taking shape in his mind.

“At times in our past we haven’t maybe looked after the children of our nation as we should have,” he said. “I was interested in creating a portrait of a child and centering them in the story, giving a voice to the many children in Ireland who didn’t have what they needed.”

Everything here hinges on the quiet girl in question, 12-year-old Catherine Clinch, who delivers a performance that is spectacular because it isn’t. Watchful, poised and understated, director Colm Bairéad says Clinch – who travelled to Berlin but missed the premiere due to a positive Covid-19 test – needed very little direction.

“She is such an extraordinarily emotionally intelligent young person, she understood the character so fully,” he said.

“For someone who had never acted before, hitting her marks and other technical elements can be difficult, but it was extraordinary how quickly she was able to nail a scene.”

The pandemic brought casting to a halt in early 2020, yet the shift to self-tape auditions was what eventually brought Clinch to the attention of producer Cleona Ní Chrualaoí.

“I remember watching her tape in May 2020 and was blown away, I knew immediately she is the one,” she said, an instinct confirmed with a socially-distanced physical audition. “It is more difficult to find Irish-language actors in Ireland but we fell on our feet with Catherine.”

Andrew Bennett and Carrie Crowley, who play Cáit’s foster parents, agree wholeheartedly. Crowley said it was “really difficult not to totally believe what we were doing”.

Bennett toyed with trying to befriend Clinch but but, after meeting a “dignified young woman”, realised that was not a good idea. Instead the sequential shoot allowed their onscreen relationship develop in parallel with offscreen.

For many of the cast and creative team – many similar to Cáit’s age in the film and now parents themselves – the film was a painful journey to the past.

Onscreen the Catholic church barely exists – a Sacred Heart picture on the wall, a brief mention of Sunday Mass – but its effects are clear on Cáit’s parents, with more children than they can handle.

“They didn’t have the time to appreciate the person that each child is,” said Kate Nic Chonaonaigh, haunting as Cáit’s defeated mother. “That the whole world of a child cannot be accessed by the people who are their parents is an inescapable tragedy that is difficult to watch.”

There are many other stars of the film, in particular a country house with an untouched 1980s interior. Another is the close, narrow screen cinematography of Kate McCullough who, with editor John Murphy and director Colm Bairéad, embraced the self-imposed limitations of a child’s view of the world.

Completing the less-is-more philosophy, composer Stephen Rennicks allows his music to take a back seat to Ireland’s natural sound symphony. An Cailín Ciúin is a welcome birthday present for TG4, celebrating its 25th birthday, and is set to be a winner for Screen Ireland.

Another Irish contribution to the Berlinale is the co-production About Joan, directed by Laurent Larivière and starring Isabelle Huppert. As a young woman, Joan Verra, who fell in love with an Irishman – uh oh – but returned to France to raise their child. The story criss-crosses times and relationships, with flashbacks to her Dublin years recreated in an eight-day shoot in June 2020. That focuses around Glasnevin and the Gravediggers pub, with a young Joan played by Scottish-born Freya Mavor.

Co-producer Evan Horan of Blinder Films said the challenges of shooting, as Ireland emerged from its first wave of pandemic restrictions, came on top of the usual challenges of making a European co-production work, off-screen and on.

“It can be troubling to make these work but we were very fortunate with About Joan that the story lends itself to this,” said Horan. “We were lucky to be able to convince Screen Ireland to come on board initially and they were very helpful in terms of giving Covid support.”

With a golden bear for honorary Irishwoman Isabelle Huppert, huge applause for Catherine Clinch, Kin star Clare Dunne rounded out the Irish return to the German capital when she was chosen as one of 10 shooting stars at the 72nd Berlinale.