Berlinale Review: Black 47 (2018)

What alternative do people have to fight oppression when it is so normalized within our systems? Structural violence, namely the institutions and structures that are put in place by those in power and prevent others from meeting their basic needs, has for so long relied on our acquiescence, that we often are led to accept certain things as “simply how life is”. Director Lance Daly’s latest film, “Black 47“, set during the Irish Great Famine – or Irish Holocaust, as it was also known – is built around a man who is not prepared to sit and watch as people around him perish.

Feeney (played by a stone-faced James Frecheville) is an Irish soldier who has deserted the British Army, where he fought overseas. A now-runaway, he returns to his homeland to find a completely ravaged and desolate place. His parents did not survive, his brother was executed, and except for his sister-in-law, a nephew, nieces, and an uncle he does not trust, most of what he knew is now gone. The plan was to emigrate to the United States – or “America”, as they call it – but Feeney simply can’t bring himself to do it, not as so many stay behind to die, and others walk free.

Instead, he plunges into a path of revenge against all of those he deems responsible for such exploitation: police officers, government members, judges, aristocrats, even priests and pastors who use religion to oppress and colonize, they all become his targets. Think of an Irish John Wick, Kill Bill’s “The Bride”, or a Gaelic version of the Prince of Persia, running around with whatever weapon he can find, imprinting his own form of justice. The odds may be completely stacked against him, but his drive and skills make him for a powerful threat. These guys better beware.

Right on his tail and hoping to catch him, however, is a group assembled by the English government, led by war-veteran and alcoholic police inspector Hannah (veteran actor Hugo Weaving), who fought with Feeney overseas. He’s supposed to know how he thinks, he’s familiar with the training he received, and perhaps most importantly, Hannah, in prison due to the death of a suspect during a torture session, is given no choice but to join the mission. They are closely supervised by a young, naive soldier (Barry Keoghan), a local Irish man who knows the region well (Stephen Rea in one of the story’s most interesting characters), and the preppy and fop Pope (Freddie Fox), a blood-thirsty officer who embeds the beliefs of English supremacy, an element common to most men around him.

In that sense, this is a fairly simple and straightforward story, and so are the film’s reflections, ranging from “what is war and what is murder” and “oppression vs. justice”. Its characters, with the exception of Hannah and Rea’s Conneely, who display more depth and color, are fairly simplistic and manichaeistic. Some scenes have been extensively used before – think of the “person on the horse” or the “face dragged in the mud in front of the authorities”, for instance. The Irish suffer and perish, the English trample over everyone and everything that crosses their path. And yet, as much as the English, who treated the Irish like slaves and actively prevented them from accessing other types of food, had more than their fair share of responsibility in the period that reduced over two-fifths of the Irish population, reality is never as simplistic.

That being said, however, this period of Irish history has so rarely been portrayed in cinema – even less so in films that go so far beyond the country’s borders – that retelling this tale, from whatever perspective it may be, becomes therefore, also a way to heal, to understand one’s history. For a moment, we forgive the nearly superhero-like characteristics Feeney acquires, and how easily he navigates heavily-guarded spaces. His interactions with Hannah, especially those that rely on silence, are precise. The scenes that are spoken in Gaelic add to the idea of resistance and cultural survival, of preserving the dignity of a people and proper delimiting spaces. It’s a necessary and welcome statement, and I even caught myself clapping and mentally cheering for this doomed hero, “you show them, Feeney!”

The contrast between the naturally idyllic Irish countryside and the reality of hunger and death is stark. Although set in the 1840s, the stone-houses whose roofs are no longer in place, the raggedy clothes worn by the peasant population, and the sheer absence of any sort of dignified support system makes this place reminiscent of the Middle Ages. And still, in the midst of such horror, cinematographer Declan Quinn (“Leaving Las Vegas” and “Rachel Getting Married”) manages to capture something that is also sublime, particularly the scenes where nature is taken by snow. But then again, we don’t have much time to appreciate beauty here, and like Conneely once says, after being questioned by an English aristocrat as to why these locals don’t appreciate the beauty of their surroundings, “maybe people would place more value on beauty if they could eat it.”

Regardless of its Irish origins, this is a tale that has the power to connect with audiences worldwide, spreading a sentiment that, although simplistic, can also be very powerful. Seated next to me in the public screening during the 68th edition of the Berlinale, was a German man with a shaved head, hands and necks covered in tattoos, wearing an all-black outfit. When the lights were back on, he turned to me and asked what I thought of the film. He then replied that “in times of such intolerance, this is a very much needed story. Perhaps it can inspire people to do more than just sit and watch horror taking place.” I guess he’s right.

 

Director: Lance Daly (also known for “Kisses” and “Life’s a Breeze”)

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