Monday, July 07, 2008

When Movies Hit the Mark

My husband and younger son and I were in Dublin for our son's thirteenth birthday in April. Rather than do a real celebration with presents in Ireland, without his brother and sister (who'd had to come back early to start college classes), we spent a normal day sightseeing, then let him pick the restaurant for dinner. He picked that oh-so-Irish place, the TGIFridays across from St. Stephen's Green.

Afterwards we walked back along Grafton street, the main touristy shopping area. It's very busy at night, since it's not only a tourist area, but an area for the locals to gather as well -- everyone from Dubliners enjoying a night out to students from nearby Trinity College. And on every corner there are musicians plying their trade for change.

My husband offered two of them a Euro or two to play "Happy Birthday." The older one, the guitar player with the grizzled beard, agreed in a heavy Eastern European accent. He translated our request to the younger musician, who, it turned out, wasn't familiar with the song. After a few false starts, though, they managed it. We gave them several Euros. My husband began chatting with the older gentleman, and asked him where he was from.

"Albania," said the man.

"Oh, really? What did you do there?"

"I was a psychologist."

Never jump to conclusions.

As we walked away, the older man was lecturing the younger man, making him rehearse "Happy Birthday" until he got it right. Because if this was what it took to get money, this was what they would do.

I couldn't help thinking of this as we watched the movie "Once" last night. Much of the movie, including the opening scenes, was filmed at night on Grafton street. All through the first part we were exclaiming, "Look! It's Grafton Street! It's St. Stephen's Green!" They even showed a quick shot of the front of TGIFridays.

And the main character is a street musician, a native Dubliner. In the opening scenes, he meets a young woman who's emigrated from the Czech Republic, leaving almost everything behind. She is a musician too, and this becomes a movie about their relationship, yes, but even more about their music.

This movie captures, quintessentially, Dublin in the twenty-first century, Ireland as the economic success story of the European Union. It used to be the country that people were from. Now it is the place people go to. It is the land of opportunity for Eastern Europeans -- a place where they can make something of their lives. In the movie, the girl (who, like the lead male character, never has a name) makes a living selling flowers on the street. She is thrilled that she has just found a job cleaning a house. She is taking a step up. This is what opportunity looks like.

This is not a traditional love story, but it is very much about love, and about how meeting one person can change your life -- how it can make you step outside of the uncertainty you normally live in and into something better.

I'm almost hesitant to recommend the movie, because part of the joy of it was that it was so unexpected. If I recommend it to you, you will expect the joy. I hope you're not disappointed, but that's the way it works sometimes, isn't it? Sometimes what makes something wonderful is the thrill of discovery. When you take that away, when the discovery is someone else's and not yours...

Yet I hope you'll see it.

I ended last night with tears streaming down my cheeks, and I wasn't quite sure why. And when I listened to the main song again today, I wept again. The movie isn't sad, although the ending is unexpected. And yet the ending is also just right.

The film was shot for $100,000. The actors were amateurs. They submitted it to the Sundance Film Festival, where it won the "The World Cinema Audience Award: Dramatic" and then went on to win the Academy Award for Best Song.

This is the song, with clips from the movie: