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Peter Lennon's progressive, liberal newspaper writings were heavily criticized in his home country of Ireland. He worked in Paris in the middle 1960s, soaking up that country's liberating cultural freedoms. In 1967 he came up with the idea of shooting a New Wave- inflected documentary about modern Ireland, to show the country its own backward state. Hearing good things about Jean-Luc Godard's cameraman Raoul Coutard, Lennon simply went up and asked him if he wanted to go to Ireland to shoot a film for a first-time director, and Coutard said yes.
Lennon's film Rocky Road to Dublin is a free-form cultural travelogue that examines Irish society from several angles. Lennon interviews a number of (mostly elderly) gentlemen, from conservative Church spokesmen to stuffy politicians to some outspoken writers. He also ventures into a schoolroom and some pubs and dance halls. Ireland, as one man intones, is (paraphrased) "a land of urbanized peasants without moral courage, in an alliance with an obscurantist, oppressive, regressive, uncultivated church".
Lennon begins with his own voiceover, declaring that by 1960 there was not a whimper of socialism left in a country that, in 1916, had seen one of the first attempts to overthrow colonial oppressors. The heroes of 1916 would feel betrayed if they knew how things turned out -- according to Lennon, "the response to social problems in Ireland is to go and have a few drinks". In Lennon's opinion the country seemed to have no real government by the middle 60s and was being ruled more or less by reactionary churchmen. At the U.N. Ireland meekly went along with the U.S. position on everything until a contrary vote over China in 1957. An overwhelming conservative backlash warning about Communist influence (begun by Cardinal Spellman in the states) put any kind of individualistic politics back to sleep.
Peter Lennon uses Coutard's handsome visuals to background his narration, local music and position speeches by his interview subjects, and we quickly realize that Ireland is stuck in a cultural rut. A prime example is shown early on at a Hurling match -- back during the "troubles", zealously nationalistic rebels had banned all "foreign" games, like soccer and rugby. In 1967, the rule still stands. A man explaining the ban brings up the old themes of potato famine and persecution, and then goes back to smoking his pike. The country is in a state of cultural isolation.
The heavy hand of the Catholic Church is seemingly behind everything. At Trinity College, the priests control everything. Grad students complain that advertisers control the editorial content of newspapers, demanding that the church's viewpoint be the only one given voice. In a grade school, proper young students (education is segregated by sex) assert their rigorous lessons: "If Adam and Eve had not committed Sin, we'd have cured every disease and all would be rich". Another boy nervously adds that the safe advice is to avoid all bad plays and movies.
A writer (either Sean O'Faolain or Conor Cruse O'Brien) regrets that in this country famed for great writing, the freedom of writers is not defended. One writer claims that the Church destroyed his opportunities for employment when they found out he was a communist. Another tells us that the famous Abbey Theater long ago rejected progressive work by Sean O'Casey and now presents only safe, middle-of-the-road plays. Lennon follows with a long list of authors banned at one time or another -- a list that includes almost every well-known Irish writer. The list could have inspired the scrolling end titles on Costa-Gavras' "Z".
Lennon gives a church representative the floor to make the case for censorship: Permissiveness is destroying the culture and the world and only by sticking to tradition can the Devil be kept beyond the gates of hell where he belongs. This speech is delivered quite sincerely by a man so thoughtful you'd never want to offend him -- as long as he's not telling you what you can and can't do.
The film then cuts to very good coverage at a dance hall. The school-approved event shows polite boys and girls getting together in a supervised environment where, we're told, everybody enjoys observing the correct etiquette. It's the only approved contact between young people of different sexes, which explains a lot. Over at a less formal working-class gathering, the kids look more like Brit or U.S. teens, the skirts are short and the music is rock 'n' roll. A conservative voice asks, "Are we losing our own sense of sin?"
The influence of the progressive Papal Encyclicals of the early 60s is seen, we are told, in a few priests permitted to tamper with the old ways of doing things. One Father Michael Cleary is singled out. He sings a "boogie woogie" song to cheer up patients in a hospital ward but still delivers a flat speech at a wedding, where the groom seems already inebriated. We also see Cleary teaching some kids to box and sharing a cigarette with some gravediggers (who work in shirts and ties).
The docu then plays a powerful voiceover by a young married woman, who tells of how she was criticized by a priest for using the coitus interruptus method to avoid conception. His advice is for the distraught wife to sleep in another room if she doesn't want children. A censor then speaks up about a "profound and stubborn ignorance" in his country, which gives authority to clueless young male priests to advise women on their sex lives. Lennon ends his show on shots of spirited schoolboys, books in hand, chasing after his camera car.
Earlier on, the film takes a break to interview director John Huston on the set of Sinful Davey. He says that foreign production work is good but that the country really needs to initiate its own moviemaking industry.
The music heard is by a folk group called "The Dubliners", and the docu pauses at least twice for musical interludes, one of them a live performance in a pub. As Lennon has said, Rocky Road to Dublin remains the only significant film record of life in Ireland in the 1960s.
Icarus' Films' DVD release of Rocky Road to Dublin is a good encoding of this handsomely filmed B&W docu. The sound is good but the Irish accents are sometimes too thick for this auditor -- English subtitles would have been very nice.
A major extra on the disc is the half-hour follow-up docu The Making of Rocky Road to Dublin, a 2004 color and B&W film by Paul Duane. In the style of docus that take filmmakers back to "the scene of the crime", the camera follows Peter Lennon around Ireland and Paris as he explains how his film came about and relates his experience working with Raoul Coutard (answer: delightful). Coutard is seen in the 1967 dance hall manning his 35mm Eclair, and in new color footage. At one point Lennon explains that he shot some color film but had it converted to B&W as the color didn't seem stable.
The exhibition back-story of Rocky Road to Dublin takes us into French Film history. Lennon exhibited his film at Cannes in 1968 without talking to any Irish authorities, as no indigenous Irish films had been made in twenty years. As it turned out, the docu was the last movie screened before students led by Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut shut down the entire festival. The docu includes an uncut slice of news film in which Godard and Truffaut demand that projection cease on their verbal authority. In older docus we'd heard these two New Wave directors shouting down a protest from the audience -- and in this uncut piece we discover that the speaker is Peter Lennon, upset that his competitors won't be able to have their films shown.
Rocky Road to Dublin was screened in Paris during the May strikes; Lennon explains that it was embraced "by the students" because of his repeated thematic line referring to the betrayal of Ireland's 1916 rebellion: "Now that you've got your revolution, what are you going to do with it?" His answer is that Ireland gave it to the Church and the bourgeoisie. Back in Dublin, Lennon's movie was damned as an insult to the country by pundits who hadn't seen it. But it wasn't banned and the resulting notoriety won it a seven weeks' booking. Then it disappeared and wasn't shown again for 25 years. Lennon says that it has never been shown on Irish television.
Amusingly, the docu reveals that the progressive priest in Rocky Road to Dublin was having an affair with a woman during the filming. Are we losing our sense of Sin yet?
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Rocky Road to Dublin rates:
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