Blog Directory CineVerse: Irish-American cinema's best-kept secret

Irish-American cinema's best-kept secret

Monday, August 30, 2021

Folklore and tall tales are among the social currency of many cultures across the planet, with the Irish being no exception. But what if the larger-than-life myths your grandparents tell you as a bedtime story turn out to be true? That’s the cinematic narrative approach taken by filmmaker John Sayles in his memorable movie The Secret of Roan Inish. Our CineVerse group recently got a crash course in Gaelic and selkies as we explored this visually lush and thematically rich picture (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here). Here’s a review of our talking points.

What did you find interesting, unexpected, or rewarding about The Secret of Roan Inish?

  • This is a family film for all ages, but it’s not Disney-fied, dumbed-down, overly sentimental and schmaltzy, or bloated with unnecessary special effects. Arguably, this is a movie that can be appreciated more by adults – many of whom have lost the ability to use their imagination and tap into inner child-like sensibilities – than kids, although it’s a perfectly appropriate film for families with young through older children, too.
  • This was a departure for Sayles, who is otherwise mostly known for films rooted in realism and specific periods that focus on sociocultural and sociopolitical themes.
  • The narrative shifts temporally, with many flashbacks and seemingly exaggerated sequences (that prove to not be tall tales at all but realistic accounts) upending the linearity of the story.
  • “The story unfolds forwards and backwards, simultaneously. This approach in the film gives one a strong sense of the connection between past and present, with Fiona as a link to the future,” wrote Jungian analyst Lara Newton.
  • Sayles isn’t flashy in his directing choices, avoiding grandiose gestures, showy camera movements, clever editing, and attention-getting special effects. With the help of master cinematographer Haskell Wexler, who captivates us with outstanding outdoor photography, we come to embrace this story organically. The visuals are helped by the decision to shoot on location in Donegal, Ireland, with certain sequences shot at the Isle of Mull in Argyll, Scotland.

Themes explored

  • Harmonizing with nature and restoring balance. Fiona, who herself is a dark one born to each new generation of the Coneelly family, is the bridge between the past and the future and the catalyst that will bring back her brother and rekindle a bond with the seals and the island of Roan Inish. Her steadfastness, honesty, and fearlessness help ultimately inspire her loved ones to embrace their old way of life, which involved coexisting amicably with nature on the island.
    • Movie reviewer Richard Scheib wrote: “The real Irish, the film seems to say, have been corrupted by having civilization imposed on them in the loss of their mystic harmony with the sea. The film spends much time showing the art of lost crafts like thatching and the tarring of boats.”
  • The virtue of keeping an open mind and thinking like a child, even when reality is blended with fantasy. This is a story about magic and myth that has to be taken literally, as it is told with realistic details and, except for the grandfather’s tall tale flashback scenes, is depicted as factual. Fiona’s actual younger brother’s return to the family after living with the seals; the grandparents and cousin also believe in the supernatural elements at work.
    • Roger Ebert wrote: “The secret of John Sayles’ ‘The Secret of Roan Inish’ is that it tells of this young girl with perfect seriousness. This is not a children’s movie, not a fantasy, not cute, not fanciful. It is the exhilarating account of the way Fiona rediscovers her family’s history and reclaims their island. If, by any chance, you do not believe in Selkies, please at least keep an open mind, because in this film Selkies exist in the real world, just like you and me.”
  • The power of love, lineage, storytelling, and tradition. Fiona doesn’t give up on her little brother; her elders don’t dismiss her as a psychologically disturbed or overly imaginative child, giving credence to the legends and tales of old passed down from earlier generations; and this extended family stays loyal and true to its roots and bloodline.

Similar works

  • Into the West
  • The Golden Seal
  • The Indian in the Cupboard
  • The Water Horse
  • Where the Wild Things Are
  • The Secret Garden
  • Life of Pi
  • Field of Dreams
  • Tuck Everlasting

Other works by John Sayles

  • The Return of the Secaucus Seven
  • The Brother From Another Planet
  • Eight Men Out
  • Matewan
  • Passion Fish
  • Lone Star
  • Sunshine State

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