The year is 1923. The Irish Civil War is nearing its end, leading to the creation of the Irish Free State despite the violent objections of the Irish Republican Army. So begins The Banshees of Inisherin, a film written and directed by Martin McDonagh (In Bruges; Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), which can be streamed on HBO Max or rented on Amazon Prime and other sites. It will also be screened at Snow Library (67 Main St., Orleans) on Wednesday, Jan. 25 at 2 p.m.
McDonagh’s film is set on the isolated fictional island of the title, off the west coast of Ireland. While the guns of war can be heard in the distance on the mainland, two longtime friends, Pádraic, played by a haggard-looking Colin Farrell, and Colm, played by the bearish Brendan Gleeson, have a disagreement that blows up into a feud. (Farrell and Gleeson were also paired in McDonagh’s In Bruges.)
Both men are single. Pádraic lives with his sister, Siobhán, as well as his beloved pony, Jenny, and other farm animals; Colm lives alone with a dog and ancient artifacts, composing folk music for his fiddle. He’s working on a piece, “The Banshees of Inisherin,” and decides he no longer wants to be Pádraic’s friend so he can fully devote himself to his music and legacy. Pádraic, a relatively simple soul, can’t understand this. He dreads the loss of his friend’s company and their daily routine of chats at the local pub. The more Pádraic pushes, the more Colm insists on the break, finally threatening to cut off a finger on his playing hand every time Pádraic talks to him.
McDonagh films with a detached, semi-bemused air, but as the emotions become more intense, the somber reality of the characters’ lives becomes more palpable. “Banshees” are Gaelic spirits who wail of death and sorrow, and indeed, one older woman in Inisherin foretells a bad end to the feud. The movie plays out like a demented fable — modern in its honest accounting of the perversities of small-town life, yet as old as time in its moral calculus. The performances — large and small — are restrained and often quite moving. Watching The Banshees of Inisherin is a transporting, haunting experience — it’s a story as Irish as they come.
Also haunting, but in a much more optimistic vein, is Céline Sciamma’s 72-minute feature Petite Maman, which is streaming on Hulu or available to rent on other sites. It’s the tale of an eight-year-old girl’s processing of grief and confusion after her maternal grandmother dies in a senior residence in contemporary France.
The girl, Nelly (Joséphine Sanz), spends a week after the death at her grandmother’s country home, as her mom and dad empty it of belongings. A day later, Nelly’s mom, Marion (Nina Meurisse), leaves the clean-up to her husband and takes off. It is then that Nelly encounters a neighboring family that curiously mirrors that of her own, only the eight-year-old girl who lives there (played by Joséphine Sanz’s sister, Gabrielle) is named Marion and resembles Nelly’s mom in her youth — and little Marion’s mother, who walks with a cane and is anticipating going into surgery, is like an embodiment of Nelly’s grandmother in middle age.
With them, Nelly explores the issues of mothers, daughters, and loss. The two girls play outdoors and in the kitchen and even have a sleepover. It all might be in Nelly’s imagination, but there are also instances in which adult characters respond to eight-year-old Marion as if she’s real. This curious subjective-objective mix is thoroughly enchanting because it lets you get inside the mind of a child who is not fully capable of articulating what she thinks.
Sciamma is a remarkable queer writer-director, whose last feature was the mesmerizing Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Petite Maman most resembles an earlier film of hers, Tomboy, about a 10-year-old girl who moves to a new neighborhood, gets mistaken for a boy, and decides to run with her new identity. As a filmmaker, Sciamma coaxes startlingly real performances from actors young and old, and she mines the outsider edges of their identities. Petite Maman is a great introduction to her art.
A movie that deals with family and community ties in a more bombastic way, Avatar: The Way of Water, is now playing in local theaters in 3D. It’s the sequel by James Cameron to his original 2009 Avatar, and both are massively expensive sci-fi blockbusters about a distant planet inhabited by the Na’vi, a blue-skinned, super-tall race that humans can interact with as digital avatars.
In The Way of Water, Neytiri, the Na’vi character Sam Worthington became when he gave up his human identity in the 2009 film, leads a rebel group fighting the human expansion to the planet. The Earth, apparently, is dying, and humans are intent on colonizing the Na’vi. It’s an allegory of the European genocide of indigenous people in the New World, and Cameron essentially turns The Way of Water into an old-fashioned war movie.
Snobby critics tend to pooh-pooh Cameron’s immensely popular films, such as the Terminator series and Titanic, which have grossed billions (and post-Covid, The Way of Water has already followed that pattern). But why blame him for expanding on classic B-movie tropes and plots with irresistible grace and style? His dialogue can feel clichéd, but that’s not where he experiments. His action sequences are brilliant, and his epic vision can be awe-inspiring.
That’s certainly true of The Way of Water. Clocking in at 3 hours, 12 minutes, it can feel exhausting, like some of the recent Marvel juggernauts. That’s hard to take if you’re old like me, but the visuals are wondrous and beautiful, and the story is clear and engrossing. Don’t wait for it to reach the small screen.