If Andrei Tarkovsky had grown up in rural Ireland, he might have made a biographical cine-memoir as luminously beautiful as Song of Granite. Shot in ravishing monochrome, the second dramatic feature by documentary maker Pat Collins is a lyrical, elliptical, lightly experimental rumination on the life of folk singer Joe Heaney and the cultural hinterland that shaped him. This Irish-Quebecois co-production has been nominated as Ireland’s official submission for consideration in the foreign-language film Oscar category on account of its heavily Gaelic dialogue, with English playing a secondary role.
Collins has crafted a mesmerizing modernist memorial to ancient Celtic traditions, even if its determinedly slow pace and diffuse narrative will likely leave some viewers unsatisfied. Picked up by niche distributor Oscilloscope Laboratories, this uncompromisingly arty biopic has obvious appeal to the globally scattered Irish Diaspora and folk music connoisseurs, though fans of vintage Tarkovsky and early Terence Davies movies will also find immersive sensory pleasures here, too. Currently on limited U.S. release, Song of Granite is screening at the Film Forum in New York this week before expanding into other states next month.
A majestic monochrome monument to a nation’s cultural memory.
Heaney is widely considered one of the 20th century’s greatest exponents of sean nós (”old style”) singing, rustic storytelling ballads performed a capella in the Gaelic language, a tradition with deep roots in the rural west and south of Ireland. Raised on the remote coastal fringes of Connemara in County Galway, he was educated in Dublin, earning a scholarship and national acclaim for his musical talents. Even so, shyness held him back from public performance until his twenties.
In adulthood, Heaney’s nomadic life included long spells as an itinerant laborer in London and Glasgow, abandoning a wife and family along the way. But after he was invited to play the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island in 1965, he settled full-time in America, first working as a doorman in New York City, then a college teacher in Connecticut. At the time of his death in 1984, he was artist-in-residence at the University of Washington in Seattle.
Viewers will glean only the barest of these biographical details from Song of Granite, which frames Heaney’s life story more like a lyrical audio-visual symphony than a linear biopic. Collins gives us a minimum of context and chronology, focusing instead on cinematographer Richard Kendrick’s gorgeous widescreen vistas of elemental Irish landscape and on full-length performances by a vocally gifted ensemble cast. Even when nobody is singing, music is an ever-present character in the film, from the steady hum and twinkle of Delphine Measroch and Guido Del Fabbro’s avant-folk score to the poetically sparse sound design by Oscar-winner Sylvain Bellemare (Arrival).
Collins casts three different actors to play Heaney: as a boy (Colm Seoighe), in adulthood (Michael O’Chonfhlaola) and in late middle age (Macdara Ó Fátharta). All are strong singers, though the bulk of the vocal duties fall to fisherman and ex-boxer O’Chonfhlaola, a feted non-professional singer in real life and owner of a strikingly gaunt, haunted face that would once have earned him a solid career in Italian neorealist cinema. In addition, Collins weaves grainy archive footage of the real Heaney into the narrative, as well as audio quotes from him and his family, though these documentary snippets are used sparingly enough not to overwhelm the main dramatized scenes. The director calls these interwoven filmic textures a “conversation across time.”
Song of Granite rigorously resists the simplistic psychology of most music-themed biopics. In a nod to his documentarian roots, Collins maintains an admirably unsentimental distance from Heaney, refusing to embroider the scrappy known facts of his life, or to mobilize the romantic mythology that often clouds Celtic screen stories. Consequently the singer remains an elusive antihero for most of the film, though there are some modest insights in the later scenes when his older self reflects ruefully on his long musical journey. As the lyrical finale looms, Collins allows himself a rare detour into magical realism with a dreamlike vision of Heaney returning to the Connemara of his boyhood, a pilgrimage he never managed in reality, dying the classic death of the Irish exile in faraway America.