Like any film, the 1995 Irish release, Circle of Friends can be seen from many perspectives. Some may see it as mainly romantic comedy, albeit with some darker and disturbing tones.
The film is essentially about small-town teenagers who go to the big city – Dublin in this case – to there discover love … among other things.
And seen from that perspective, it is not terribly different from much of Hollywood’s (better) output.
But at another level, it is a very Irish film, based on the novel by Irish novelist Maeve Binchy and realised on the Emerald Isle by Irish director Pat O’ Connor. And it contains a loving recreation of the Catholic Ireland of the 1950’s.
At least, such is my own impression, further confirmed by looking at the DVD’s supplementary material, which evidences the filmmaker’s evocation of the country of their fond memory of a bygone era.
Now let it be clearly said at the outset: Catholic Ireland – it is a subject very close to this reviewer’s heart indeed! For although I never experienced the 1950s Ireland depicted here, Providence guided my life in such a way that I lived in Ireland, joyfully drank in a still somewhat Catholic culture there, and encountered many who recalled the era this film is set in.
Inevitably then, I bring my own interpretive lens to this film. This is of course true of any commentator. The twist here – and I rather like taking twists – is that rather than let my own hermeneutic lie unconsciously in the background, I want to bring it openly into the foreground.
Yes I was very deeply moved by the year and a half I spent in the culture of Catholic Ireland, including that of Mary Immaculate College – and I bring that depth of emotion with me to this review.
Now – what to make of the film? To my mind, the film presents a mixed bag indeed. I will start with the down-side. A continuous theme on offer here is one of so-called sexual repression in the face of Irish Catholic mores.
Thus is a Dublin professor is repeatedly seen with a message to the effect of how much happier the Irish would be, were they not being controlled by the imposition of “shame and guilt”.
As if such shame and guilt were nothing more than impositions from our conditioning. This is of course basic Freudianism: we feel shame and guilt for no other reason than that we have introjected parental judgment. Shame and guilt in such a vision are tyrannical outsiders– unrelated to anything innate …
Now of course, there are such things as unhealthy and neurotic guilt. There is such a thing as morbid repression – and clearly and sometimes tragically, Ireland has known her share of such patterns.
Still, the Christian response to this is not to swing to the opposite pole! For guilt from a Christian perspective need not be a neurosis to be reduced to Freudian terms. Guilt can be something else entirely – not a morbid outsider, but resulting from the God-given interior gift of conscience.
It is then, not something to be liberated from, but listened to. But sadly indeed, a message of this film would seem to be how the Irish of the 1950’s suffer from their lack of sexual liberation!
One of the lead characters expresses his pining for “unfettered sexual experimentation” … Whatever the truth of the matter, many have found that the so-called sexual liberation of the following decades led to very different forms of suffering.
Do these thoughts belong in a film review? What can I say? I am writing from a traditional Catholic perspective and seek to warn those like me. This film contains a sustained and disturbing thread of liberal propaganda that we will all be so happy, if we throw off sexual “fetters”. And to my mind, this film features a sometimes unpleasant patina of slightly lurid sexuality throughout.
Does that mean the film is simply a write-off? No, indeed.
For I am happy to say the film contains much else of real value. It is, I think, a very human film. If the plot is not particularly original, nor the screenplay of the calibre of genius, the film is not lacking substance either. It still displays real insight into the human condition. Minnie Driver, Chris O’ Donnell and the other actors give good, sensitive performances, and the result I found to be often very warm and genuinely touching.
Moreover a very different world is invoked here … a very different world, that is, to the secularised world now dominating – or should I say tyrannising – so many of us. American shop assistants I am told these days, can be fired during Noel, if they say: “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays”. And everywhere we see a concerted effort to impose supposedly neutral secular icons and institutions upon our hearts and souls …
But here in this film,we see a very different culture indeed – a culture wherein it is not a sin to have a public acknowledgment of Christian institutions. A culture that is not oriented to modern relativistic opinions and fashions, manufactured by elites, but oriented to that which transcends opinion, the truths embodied in the Catholic Mystery …
For me, much of the value of this warm, engaging film is that we have an Anglophone film that gives us a window into a very different culture to other Anglophone cultures – particularly those of the present-day. An afficianado of say, Italian or Spanish films might indicate there are similar windows in those films, too.
But those of us in the English-speaking world can benefit I think, from seeing an Anglophone culture not forged by Protestant or even Puritan culture, degrading into secularism …
Yes such can be the benefit of the vision of Catholic Ireland. Disappearing Catholic Ireland, disappearing under the onslaught of the Protestant-Secular trajectory of the Anglo-American world. Here it might be well to observe, I am such an Anglo-American, myself. I grew up in both America and England, and neither culture gave me in my youth, the slightest notion of what Catholic Christianity is.
But later I had both the immense joy of discovering Catholic Ireland and the profound pain of seeing its disappearance. But mostly I was in the West of Ireland, where the secular onslaught is slower.
There in the West, I recall picking up a young hitchhiker. She was not a practicising Catholic at all and perhaps more New Age in outlook. Still, she told my wife and myself, that she had moved to the Irish West from the East. Because the East around Dublin had become in her words, “BBC-ed”.
That is to say, she saw its culture had become produced by the British Broadcasting Corporation … The East of Ireland, perhaps she might have said, had become re-colonised by British culture, if not the British themselves.
The West she recognised was different – but she was young and I do not know to what extent she saw that the Irish West was still different to the extent that its culture had been forged by something different than Anglo-American media and business elites …
To return to the film itself, here we have a view into a disappearing world of Irish youth that still goes to the Sacraments including Holy Mass and Confession – featured several times in this film. Or we see Minnie Driver with a receptacle for Holy Water by the door in her bedroom, with which she crosses herself, before exiting.
Crosses herself with Holy Water before leaving the bedroom! Is this not simply a mechanical, imitative practice of youth, mindlessly repeating and conforming to a meaningless ritual? Have we not grown beyond such cultural impositions in this modern day and age?!
No indeed. For if today’s youth – even in Ireland – no longer cross themselves with Holy Water in the bedroom, they certainly conform to many a mindless ritual imposed by our media elites …
What can one say? Youth especially is imitative. Only age can bring us past unconscious cultural conformity – which exists everywhere.
And the difference between the Irish young woman of this film and the youth of today?
It would seem arguable to me, at least, that the youth of today so often conform to a cynical, manipulative cultural agenda, whereas the young woman of the film is admittedly conforming to a time-honoured tradition not oriented to “being cool” and consumerist, but rather to something higher.
That is to say, sanctification through the grace of the Sacramental of Holy Water, as transformed via the Catholic priest. Is this to a greater benefit to her soul, than conforming to the latest designer labels? I should think so …
Where to end this twist on a film review? Perhaps by stressing that all cultures derive from a world-conception. I join my modest voice with that of the Holy Father, in his warning against “the dictatorship of relativism”.
Cultures based on a relativistic world conception will degenerate into dictatorship, precisely because there are no longer commonly- held transcendent values to protect us from the kind of elites now cynically dictating our culture …
This is an Anglophone website, written by native Anglophones. Now for most of us English-speakers, the cultural models we generally have available to us, whether it be in Britain, America, Canada or Australasia, were by and large shaped by Protestant, even Puritan ethois. These have degenerated more rapidly into secularism, it seems to me, than the Anglophone exception of Catholic Ireland. But Catholic Ireland is now overwhelmed … “BBC-ed” and worse.
But this film – flawed in certain respects, yet tender, warm and very human in other ways – this film can serve as a window I repeat, into a very different Anglophone culture, now being eradicated …
And perhaps it can even render not only insight, but even incentive for those who wish to saveher.
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