28 Dec 2018

Song of Granite (Pat Collins, 2017)

☼☼☼☼☼☼☼☼☼(☼) out of 10☼ 

'Birds don't sing
Songs of glory
Ice wrapped wings
That's my story'
 
Masterly blurring the boundaries of time and earthly existence, as well as the lines between myth and reality, documentary and fiction, Pat Collins delivers one of the most astonishing, not to mention unconventional biopics of the latest years (if not ever). The reportedly turbulent life of the Irish 'sean nós' singer Joe Heaney is not exploited for yet another illustration of the artist's whims and struggle in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, nor is it viewed and explored through the prism of a socio-political context. Instead, it is subtly and highly poeticized into a solemn, powerful, pristinely beautiful and deeply moving ode to the raw, unadorned and endangered folk tradition(s).

A decidedly lyrical, 'meandering' and slowburn narrative has an immense soul of stories told by elders, with the listeners of all generations gathered around them, by the fireplace (the first scene after the title matches the exact same description). Heany's drama is conveyed indirectly, through meaningful silences, whispers of the changing landscapes and lingering glimpses into his childhood, middle-aged wanderings and old age reveries portending death. However, its most important aspect are the songs from which the pure, genuine and intense emotions continuously stem, firmly embracing the viewer with their large wings. Performed by both professionals (Lisa O'Neill as a pub singer) and non-professionals (a superb debut for Michael O'Chonfhlaola portraying Joe in his 40s), those melancholic, roughly hewn melodies feel like they have been imbued with ancient or universal truths and mysteries, regardless of the lyrics. They are both the film's connective tissue and portals into another world where nothing but sound and the singer's loneliness exist.

What also makes Song of Granite so remarkable is Richard Kendrick's awe-inspiring B&W cinematography complemented by grainy archive footage whose texture corresponds with the 'abrasive' colors of Heany's voice. Each shot is meticulously composed primarily to match the ascetic grandeur and enchanting simplicity of 'sean nós' (old style) singing, whereby the little, cherished moments are captured so splendidly, that they all transcend their worldliness. Especially praiseworthy are the bittersweet, somewhat dreamy depictions of the protagonist's boyhood in a remote village of Carna, with youngster Colm Seoighe emerging as an acting force to be reckoned with, despite his fragile appearance.

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