There’s no shortage of blarney in “Stella Days,” helmer Thaddeus O’Sullivan’s largely winning drama about ’50s rural Ireland, but it’s blarney with a twist. Although Martin Sheen often goes full cherub in his depiction of the film’s central Catholic priest, the pic is also a frank assessment of a cleric’s crisis of faith and the church’s rather ruthless efforts to maintain medieval control in the face of modernization. The Gaelic-minded will line up naturally, but Sheen’s first-rate performance and O’Sullivan’s flair for atmosphere could make the film a fave, especially on VOD.
Michael Doorley’s memoir “Stella Days,” adapted by screenwriter Antoine O’Flatharta, was subtitled “The Life and Times of a Rural Irish Cinema,” and though the screenplay expends most of its energy illuminating the conflicts of Father Daniel Barry (Sheen), the movies are central to the story. When he’s told he must build an unnecessary new church in his Tipperary village, Father Barry decides what they really need to do is raise money for a community cinema, thus incurring the wrath of the local bluenoses: The “fil-ums” (as they say in Ireland) are “filth.” Barry begs to differ.
But just because Barry is the movie’s enlightened man doesn’t get him off the moral hook. Having spent years in Rome, where he enjoyed a rather luxurious priesthood as a Vatican scholar (working on a dissertation on St. John of the Cross, he notes), Barry has been brought back to the relative Dark Ages of 1956 Ireland by the Machiavellian Bishop Hegerty (Tom Hickey). In one of the film’s more unvarnished moments, Hegerty admits that the church is engaged in a “neverending battle for control of hearts and minds.” The village has just gotten electricity; appliances are all the rage. The next thing you know, cats and dogs will be sleeping together.
Barry, meanwhile, may just as well be in hell. “I thought it would be real in a way. But it’s just damned and poor in every way,” he tells Tim Lynch (Trystan Ravelle), the forward-thinking schoolteacher he’s hired against the wishes of the town’s leading prig (a spectacularly loathsome Stephen Rea). Some of Sheen’s more eloquent moments are in the confessional: He doesn’t exactly roll his eyes, but when he listens to a penitent adult admit to a “sin of pride” — because she thought, for a moment, that she looked good in a new dress — you can almost hear his inner scream.
That Barry feels this way is no secret to the town (Doorley’s book was about the northern Tipperary village of Borrisokane) and his airs, real or perceived, prevent him from being the kind of spiritual leader the village needs. Sheen’s performance is complex enough that the viewer, while sympathizing with him, also has to ask whether Barry himself is prideful, a bad priest, and/or merely a man whose mind won’t let him settle for a life in a petrified intellectual forest.
Though he’s a reluctant minister, Barry is not an ineffective one: He’s a source of solace for Joey (Joseph O’Sullivan), who waits in vain for his father to return from working in England. Joey’s mom, Molly (Marcella Plunkett), strapped for cash, has to take in Tim as a lodger, and this leads to very modern problems. In the midst of all this, Barry tries to get the cinema up and running, dodging the bishop and trying to reconcile his avowed obedience to the church with his conscience. Sheen may twinkle at times, but that’s fitting for this portrait of the priest as performer and politician, and the conflicts inherent in serving two masters.
Production values are fine, although the music, somewhat predictably, is occasionally laid on a bit thick.