Scenery is a Crucial “Character” in Beloved Magical-Realism Film

Quick Take: a courageous Irish girl struggles to repair her broken family.

Quick Take: a courageous Irish girl struggles to repair her broken family.

Some films are so meticulously realistic, you’re convinced you’ve been transported into the world onscreen — and you don’t want to leave. You’re so in tune with the characters’ emotions that your heart beats with theirs: you ache with their hurts and long for their dreams. Welcome to The Secret of Roan Inish.

This unforgettable film was shot in Donegal, on Ireland’s wild northwest coast, by famed cinematographer Haskell Wexler. The scenery is so exquisite, it’s been called “cinematically rhapsodic.” Here on “the isle of seals” (translated from the Gaelic), craggy rocks create refuge for dive-bombing seabirds and sunbathing seals. It’s all so beautifully real, you swear you can taste sea salt on your lips.

When magic is brought into such a picture, especially when it’s added subtly, without the fanfare of CGI special effects, the whole film seems to vibrate at a higher level. This style is “magic realism,” and for me, it’s the highest form of cinematic art. The Secret of Roan Inish, in a remarkably understated way, is one of my favorite films.

On the surface, the tale is simple — a little girl fights fate to bring her family back to its ancestral peacefulness. But, as with any Irish story, dark, unseen undercurrents roil without warning. That’s why you have to pay close attention. And why, although it stars child actors, the movie might be too complex for children used to rapid-fire action. (It’s best for adults to see the movie first, then sit with children to guide their viewing.)

It’s the late 1940s. Western Ireland suffers a post-war moribund economy. The government can no longer provide services to the remote islands. Men can’t make enough money to support their families. In a mass departure, called “the evacuation,” everyone on Roan Inish leaves the island for new lives on the mainland.

A few years later, fair-haired, 10-year-old Fiona Conneely (Jeni Courtney) is sent by her unhappy father to live with her grandparents. On a small rented farm, Grandfather Hugh (Mick Lally) and Grandmother Tess (Eileen Colgan) eke out an existence with the help of Fiona’s 13-year-old cousin, Eamon (Richard Sheridan). If Fiona squints just right through the western window, she can see the outline of Roan Inish across the bay. She dreams of living there again. In a marvelous sequence, representing many weeks, Fiona and Eamon secretly repair the thatch-roofed cottage and gardens their grandparents used to own.

Fiona finds a child’s footprint in the sand, but waves wash it away. Although refusing to talk about the footprint, Grandmother Tess allows Fiona to meet her dark, mysterious uncle Tadhg (Irish-Italian actor John Lynch).

In haunting flashbacks, Fiona is swallowed up by Tadhg’s strange tales. Generations ago, a male ancestor found a selkie — a sort of Celtic mermaid, it’s a mythical creature that looks like a seal in the water but takes human form on land — on the beach. She was so beautiful, he stole her sealskin, wrapped her in a blanket, and took her home. Nuala (Susan Lynch, actor John Lynch’s real-life sister) was a good wife and mother, until she discovered her stolen skin. She returned to the sea.

When a dark-haired Conneely child is born, Tahg says, it’s a reminder of the family’s selkie genes. Just like Fiona’s baby brother, Jamie.

On the day the island was evacuated, Jamie’s wooden boat-cradle was resting on the beach, and waves took him out to sea. Some say he disappeared so quickly because seals were pushing his cradle. Horrified by Tadhg’s story, Fiona insists she will do everything she can to find Jamie. “He’s my little brother,” she cries.

“He’s lost out there!”

“He’s not lost,” Tadhg says. “He’s just with another branch of the family.”

Discouraged, feeling helpless and alone, Fiona almost gives up hope. Then, one day on Roan Inish, she spies a naked, black-haired little boy picking wildflowers …

The Secret of Roan Inish: Showing at the Hendersonville Film Society (333 Thompson St. at Lake Pointe Landing) Sunday, February 21, 2pm. 828-697-7310.

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