The Dublin International Film Festival gets off to an energetic start

After a fully online event last year, the city’s cinemas are open again for a festival stuffed with Irish and international features

It would be wrong to suggest that Irish cinema has been in hibernation. Domestic films have played both local and international festivals throughout the pandemic. But the current Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival, back in cinemas after a 2021 online event, does seem to be releasing hitherto fettered energies back into the community.

The festival opened with a triumphant screening for Colm Bairéad's already lauded An Cailín Ciúin. Arriving straight from The Berlin Film Festival – the first Irish-language feature to play that event – this limpidly shot drama sends a young girl to stay with relatives in the country during the early 1980s. Catherine Clinch, just 12, cautiously teases taut emotions as her character inadvertently uncovers a hitherto unmentioned trauma. Bairéad adapts Claire Keegan's story with great discipline and keeps dialogue to a lean minimum. Among the adult cast, Carrie Cowley is particularly strong. Bairéad's Chekhovian debut feature will take him places.

You could see An Cailín Ciúin as a quieter companion piece to Kate Dolan's excellent horror film You Are Not My Mother. Here is another young girl estranged from her parent. In Dolan's shocker, Hazel Doupe plays a teenager who notes that her mother, returned after a period missing, appears weirdly altered. There are whisps of folk horror throughout the picture, but it also remains tied to the pressures and discomforts of urban life. All the performances are strong. Carolyn Bracken, as the mother, combines an unsettling, apparently uncharacteristic vibrancy with a bubbling witchy anxiety. Doupe, one of the nation's best young actors, channels all the audience's unease. It features another freaky unsettling score from Die Hexen. The film is, however, most notable for its take on the liminal spaces that exist on the outskirts of cities. Worth rushing towards when it opens commercially this Friday.

Sasha King's Vicky may have been the hardest film to sit through at the festival. No criticism is intended of this lucid, cleanly structured study of Vicky Phelan's heart-rending campaign on behalf of Irish women who received incorrect smear tests for cervical cancer. One is inevitably first impressed by the determination, discipline and compassion of the eponymous subject. The film is enraging, yet Ms Phelan never herself gives into to anger. But King's achievement in ordering so much information – material we think we know, but often don't – into a clear narrative is not to be understated. A vital document.

Different approaches

Other Irish documentaries unveiling at the opening weekend included Declan McGrath and Neasa Ní Chianáin's Young Plato and Vinny Murphy's Fatima Was Me City. The films take very different approaches to studies of well-known working-class locales. Young Plato sets a fly on the wall to record Kevin McArevey, headmaster of Holy Cross school in North Belfast (and Elvis fanatic), as he brings the teachings of classical philosophy to bear on his often troubled charges. The Socratic method has, it seems, value even for the under-11s. Murphy's film is a rawer affair, but it is no less satisfactory. The director brings together six men who grew up in Fatima Mansions, an often troubled south Dublin locale, from the 1970s to the 1990s. They begin by noting how many of their friends are no longer with us and go on to talk us through the Mansions' troubled years. The tales are positively Dickensian – milk and rice for dinner, kids sent to prison – but the men also show great pride in their community. It is sobering to receive confirmation that the generation which grew up in the heroin years is now comfortably into middle age. Commendable use of limited resources.

Speaking of time’s passage, Conor McMahon has been around long enough to qualify as a veteran of Irish horror. Let the Wrong One In reassures us he has lost none of his anarchic vim. This, shall we say, unpretentious comedy follows a hen party from a version of Transylvania that looks awfully like Dublin Castle back home to the capital where, now vampires, they infect a blameless geezer. All schools of mayhem then break loose. McMahon, whose short Braineater made waves two decades ago, makes promiscuous use of economic digital and practical special effects. No opportunity is wasted to have one character vomit blood over another. The escalation to full-on madness is dizzying. Will play well to late-night audiences.

Many perusing the programme had expectations raised by the promotional still for Rachael Moriarty and Peter Murphy's Róise and Frank. Bríd Ní Neachtain, who plays a recently widowed lady in a seaside town, sits beside a fine looking dog as both consider the steak in front of them. Astonishingly the Irish-language film proved as charming as the photo. Róise believes that the stray dog may carry the spirit of her dead husband and drives family and friends mad as she indulges the animal mightily. It hardly needs to be said that the film has a soft heart, but all reservations are shelved by a near-perfect ending. Róise and Frank is a genuinely delightful film that should play well across all demographics. With the fine Foscadh coming to cinemas soon and An Cailín Ciúin making waves, this is looking to be a banner year for cinema in the native tongue.

The festival, of course, also unveiled an impressive international line-up. Fernando León de Aranoa, whose Mondays in the Sun played at the first Dublin International Film Festival 20 years ago, was back with the Spanish entry for best international film at the upcoming Oscars. The Good Boss, a sly, satirical comedy, stars Javier Bardem as a factory owner who pretends to more democratic feelings than he actually holds. Sean Baker's Red Rocket, tale of a sociopathic charmer in the Texan outlands, proves every bit as effective as the same director's Tangerine and The Florida Project. Harry Wootliff's True Things, starring Ruth Wilson and Tom Burke as ill-matched lovers, was well acted, but not quite the equal of the director's earlier Only You.

International film of the opening weekend could well have been Gaspar Noé's Vortex. The title suggests a sequel to that controversial French director's deranged, hectic Into the Void, but instead we get a painful study of an elderly couple's last days starring Dario Argento, one of the world's great horror directors, and Françoise Lebrun, a veteran of high-end French cinema. Making ingenuous use of split-screen — the couple are both together and apart — Vortex is a gruelling watch, but greatly rewards the effort invested. Who knew Noé was capable of such stillness.

The Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival continues until March 6th

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