(An Cailín Ciúin)
dir: Colm Bairéad
It’s a bit funny to me that this flick has been nominated for an award in the International Feature Film category in the upcoming Oscars: An Irish flick nominated for Best Foreign Film. As wonderful as the category is, as nice as it is for some of these films to get a bit more notice out in the world, it always begs the question: “foreign” to what?
Everything outside of America is foreign, but, let’s say a film was produced in the States or Canada, and it was in a First Nation’s language or set of languages, would it be considered a potential Best Foreign Film for a given year? Would a film from Mexico, despite being part of the continent of North America, be considered a foreign film?
Anyway, whatever, this noodling doesn’t change anything, really. This is a lovely film regardless of classification, whether it’s considered foreign or exotic or not.
For a very long time I could not really tell when this was set. I am reliably told by the internets that it is set in 1981, but really, it could have been set any time from the 1960s to the 1990s and it would hardly make a difference. The main point is that there is a young, fragile girl, yes, the girl of the title, and she is very quiet.
Cáit (Catherine Clinch) is fearful and evasive. She lives in a house with a lot of sisters. Mum’s pregnant again and expecting soon. Her Da is a bit of a prick. Actually, he’s a lot of a prick, and a drunken one at that. The house and kids are neglected, the farm is rundown, and Cáit always feels like she’s in the way.
So, yeah, this is very much an Irish movie about Irish people being Irish, but without all the clichés. This has none of the blarney of The Banshees of Inisherin.
She’s nine, and, seemingly out of terror, she’s wetting the bed. Things are little better at school. In a combination of desperate hunger and misadventure, she ends up covered in liquids again, tripling her shame. She runs from school, her seething father tracks her down, but still has time to flirt with one of what we assume is his many floozies.
Her ma decides to fob her off to a relative, an older cousin, for the summer, so she’s not underfoot, when she was never underfoot anyway, being so evasive. She seems like she’s been trying to disappear herself for so long, now she’s getting her wish.
It’s a long drive to County Waterford, a distance the dad complains about a lot. He spends the trip admonishing the girl for stuff she hasn’t even done yet. The girl is terrified, of course, wondering if she’s going from bad to worse.
When they finally get there he’s a rude prick to the couple who are taking Cáit in, as if he’s the one doing them a favour. But these are, after all, his wife’s people, not his. He makes a point of being the only person in the film that doesn’t speak in Gaelic. I’m sure this isn’t in any way the flick’s point, but when the biggest arsehole in a flick doesn’t speak or refuses to speak the language that everyone else speaking, it kind of implies “only arseholes wouldn’t speak Gaelic if they could.”
The couple, the Cinnsealachs (Kinsellas), seem nice enough. The wife Eibhlín (pronounced like Eileen, played by Carrie Crowley) starts doting on Cáit before she’s barely through the door.
But the quiet girl of the title is still mortally terrified. She is, to use a phrase I have never completely understood, perpetually waiting for the other shoe to drop, at every second of the day and night. She keeps thinking this couple will do something terrible to her, or yell at her, or maybe punish her.
And why is this? We get the feeling that the neglect one might experience being the fifteenth child of two cold drunken Irish Catholic parents means one might live for 9 years and not experience a lot of love, affection or even safety. And it probably has an effect.
It’s might seem unkind to say this, but watching Cáit slowly accept that maybe these people aren’t going to eat her face is kinda like watching a rescue animal slowly accept that his or her new rescuers aren’t going to hurt them again. Cáit is always on the lookout, and always worries that if she says too many words, or says them in the wrong way, someone will scream blue bloody murder at her.
And I have to admit that I had my heart in my mouth, too, desperately worried that someone was going to hurt her again, or that something bad was going to happen to her.
The lovely couple, though, are not to be feared. Eibhlín is more clear in her good humour and affections, and senses that she needs to be as gentle as possible with the girl, and that she is. So incredibly gentle that it breaks my heart to see.
The husband is a bit more reticent, bit more reserved, but he too sees that she just needs to be treated gentle and be trusted. Cáit, for her part, wants to be helpful, and she tries to do chores and not be a burden, and to be seen as worthy. Worthy of what, you might ask?
Well, worthy of someone’s love, maybe.
There’s still room for misunderstanding. As Seán (Andrew Bennett) starts to warm to her, he takes her out for the first time to show her what he does on their dairy farm. In the process of mucking out the milking shed, she disappears, and he panics, with an urgency that implies something terrible as the source of his panic.
She’s only gone off to find a broom, to help him in his work, but he thought she just wandered off, and yells at her that she can’t just do that.
She is, of course, devastated, and runs and hides.
A little bit later, he gives her a cookie to make amends.
It’s a testament to how wonderful this film is that these tiny gestures are rendered so beautifully, so powerfully, and yet they’re such simple things. The little ways in which the couple protect, support and then encourage Cáit are so basic, so basically human, but they’re done with such love. When Seán encourages her to run in order to get the mail, or when he tells her how grand it is that she speaks such few words, because it means each one is important to her, and other people would do better to speak less, it’s so heart-rending.
The couple have friends as well, and they are gentle Gaelic-speaking souls too, on the most part. They are a part of a community, but of course not everyone in that community is as loving and kind as the Cinnsealachs.
This world being as it is, of course they’ll have neighbours more vicious and way more gossipy than them. A vicious crone chaperones Cáit home from a wake, and not only peppers her with questions intended to get dirt on her neighbours, but also cruelly tells her more than she asked for about the couple’s tragic past.
It’s like William Blake once said: A truth that’s told with bad intent beats all the lies you can invent.
It’s all so much. So simple, so beautifully, heartbreakingly rendered. I think my heart shattered into thousands of pieces a fair few times with the tiniest of gestures or understated affections.
And the ending…if I thought I’d cried a fair few times before the ending – that ending, one word repeated twice, with two completely different meanings each time, broke whatever I had left.
Such a brave performance from the youngest, to be so fragile as to look like a mean word could tear her to pieces, and such lovely performances from the central couple.
In its gentleness, but not its subject matter or purpose, this reminded me a bit of that recent Celine Sciamma flick Petite Maman, which isn’t a bad thing, by any means. But this was far more emotionally effective, I found. Easily one of the best flicks of last year, in any language.
9 times The Quiet Girl needs to be protected and empowered out of 10
“Many’s the person missed the opportunity to say nothing and lost much because of it” - The Quiet Girl