once in a while, a film comes along that makes you believe the hype about small being beautiful, non-professional actors being more ‘authentic’, and digital video being the way forward. it gives credibility to the festival that awarded it prizes, it is worthy of the ecstatic reviews you’ve seen in the press, and it manages to hit high notes that are so personally resonant to the viewer you can’t help imagining they made it for you.
‘once’ did this for me yesterday. it’s an irish film written and directed by john carney, about two musicians, played by the frames’ glen hansard, and marketa irglova, meeting and making music together in dublin. the music arises naturally out of the story – he’s busking, or they’re recording together, or singing at a party. the story arc is pretty conventional – boy meets girl, girl gives boy 10 cent as a busking contribution, boy fixes girl’s vacuum cleaner, and the rest ensues in patterns that we’ve seen before, but the way ‘once’ does it is so beguiling that you easily forget you’re watching a fantasy. this film feels like real life. paralleling the love story is a subtle commentary on the dublin underclass – both the sector of the indigenous poor that is fatally addicted to heroin, and the ‘new irish’, immigrants living a dozen to a house, sharing space so cramped that their landlords should be ashamed. or at the very least, those of us who live in ireland and know landlords should be shaming them into behaving ethically.
but what lingers most in the mind about ‘once’ is the story of two lonely people interacting with each other’s souls. i love the rough edges of this film – some of the lighting isn’t great, it’s obvious at times that we’re watching inexperienced actors – because this is what makes it feel like it’s really happening. i also like the fact that it portrays the guy as the romantic, while the girl is the practical one who thinks clearly. a subversion of love story cliches, to be sure; but i think it also tells a certain kind of truth that is usually underplayed in the kind of movies that disempower women by portraying them as only waiting for their prince charming to ride in and sweep them off their feet. ‘once’, however, is a film that manages to entertain, move, educate, challenge, and provide realistic hope in the midst of an often despairing urban environment. ‘once’ is my favourite film of the year so far.