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Mining hidden gems from Irish cinema

By Denise Taylor
March 12, 2009
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Green beer isn't exactly the most culturally enlightening way to honor St. Patrick's Day. Boston College prefers to celebrate with its annual Irish Film Festival, and this year's flicks are culled from the cutting edge of Ireland's thriving film scene.

"For a small country, Ireland has a vibrant film industry that seems to baffle people by continually doing things very well," said Irish Studies Program codirector and film series organizer Robert Savage. "It's interesting to see smaller films like 'In Bruges' [with Colin Farrell] do well and get onto the radar on this side of the Atlantic."

But Savage is always on the lookout for the hidden gems, the ones that have done well in Europe and Ireland but that he said "don't have the budget or support or powerful distributors that get you into the Sony megaplex in the US."

"The whole notion of the film series is to bring other films to Boston that would never have a chance to be seen in the big cinemas here," said Savage. "We want to bring them to an audience here so they can appreciate them."

Now in its eighth year, the two-week series opens tonight at the college. Campus screenings are free, while satellite screenings at West Newton Cinema are ticketed. Highlights include the 2007 feature film "Garage," which runs Sunday at 7 p.m. at West Newton Cinema. A multi-award-winner that took the CICAE Art and Essai Cinema Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, the drama by Lenny Abrahamson is Savage's festival favorite. It's a story about a misfit trying to find love and meaning.

"Abrahamson is writing about life in a very changed Ireland. He's trying to look at life in contemporary Ireland and how all the success we hear about doesn't always percolate down to everybody in the country," said Savage. "He's got real wit and humor. His writing is funny and sharp and his films are often poignant portraits of ordinary people."

The festival presents both documentaries and feature films, as well as shorts and a few treats for Irish-music fans. Like Irish film festivals being held in Chicago and San Francisco in March, Boston College's series owes its ability to run such a mix partly to Reel Ireland, a program of the Irish Film Institute. In turn, Reel Ireland, which promotes Irish film worldwide, owes its existence in part to Irish film fans including Savage. The symbiosis goes back decades.

"The New Wave of Irish films in the '80s, like 'My Left Foot' and 'The Crying Game,' became popular internationally and really helped spur an interest in Irish film," said Savage. "But oddly enough, those big, popular films were made by filmmakers that had made smaller films in Ireland and then had success when they finally had access to big Hollywood budgets. Seeing that is what pushed the Irish government to help fund an indigenous film industry."

Money flowed to emerging filmmakers as a result, and the Irish Film Institute was formed to promote Irish cinema. Eventually, Irish film aficionados such as Savage turned to the institute to help them locate films for US festivals. Their interest and requests spurred the creation of Reel Ireland in 2005 to help them.

"Now they help fund about half our program and offer us films. We couldn't do it without them," said Savage. "There's a lot of red tape and expense involved in screening a film, and they clear a lot of that out."

Other highlights this year include the small-budget success "32A," a light-hearted coming of age story about 13-year-old Maeve's summer holiday (screening Monday at West Newton Cinema at 7 p.m.). On Tuesday at 6 p.m. in Newton, the gripping documentary "Saviours" offers an intimate portrait of a youth boxing program in North Dublin.

"It takes a look at life in a part of the city that tourists don't go to," said Savage. "It's a really well-done documentary with a sense of humor."

Irish-music fans will not want to miss the March 19 free double-feature at Boston College (starting at 6:30 p.m.). The 1967 documentary "Fleá Ceoil" captures the resurgence of traditional Irish music in the 1960s at the mini-Woodstocks of the day. It's followed by Ireland's first musical film, the cult mock opera "O'Donoghue's Opera." A spoof based on a ballad, the 1965 film stars musical sensation the Dubliners.

Or arm-travel to wind-swept Tory Island with the documentary "Oileán Thoraí, which captures a vanishing way of life in Ireland's notoriously unforgiving island landscapes (Sunday, 6 p.m., at West Newton Cinema).

"Today, you see really interesting independent films in Ireland that are sometimes experimental and unconventional," said Savage. "A lot reflect the changes in our society. . . . They ask provocative questions."

Boston College's Irish Film series runs tonight through March 26 at Boston College (various locations on campus) and at West Newton Cinema, 1296 Washington St., Newton. Tickets: free for all Boston College screenings; $9.75 for West Newton Cinema. Full schedule at 617- 552-3938 or www.bc.edu/irishfilm.

TAP INTO SYRUP SEASON: At Drumlin Farm's annual Sap-to-Syrup Farmer's Breakfast, the maple syrup is as real as it gets. On Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., guests can see how sap is collected and boiled down at the Lincoln educational farm and then sit down to a pancake breakfast. The farm's homemade sausage and roasted home-grown potatoes round out the meal.

Ongoing breakfast tours will also discuss how Native Americans produced syrup and why the season is so short here in eastern Massachusetts. Guides will also show off the farm's new kids - as in cute, fuzzy baby goats.

Sap-to-Syrup Farmer's Breakfast at Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary, 208 South Great Road (Rte. 117), Lincoln. Reservations must be made by 3 p.m. tomorrow. Cost: $14; children $11; free for children under 3. 781-259-2200. www.massaudubon.org/drumlinfarm.

TCAN PLAYERS TAKE ON A THRILLER: Imagine that you are alone, blind, and trapped in your home as three thugs search your house for a heroin-filled doll. Such is the plight of Greenwich Village housewife Susy Hendrix in the psychological thriller "Wait Until Dark," which opens tomorrow night at The Center for Arts in Natick.

The 1966 Broadway production of the play garnered a Tony nomination for Lee Remick, and the 1967 film snagged an Oscar nomination for Audrey Hepburn. The TCAN Players community theater troupe are happy to settle with making you shift to the edge of your seat - and perhaps jump once or twice.

"Wait Until Dark" March 13 through 22 at TCAN, 14 Summer Street, Natick. Show times: 8 p.m. tomorrow, Saturday, and March 20 and 21; 6 p.m. Sunday and 2 p.m. March 22. Tickets: $20 to $16; members $18 to $14. 508-647-0097. www.natickarts.org.

Please send ideas for the arts column to westarts@globe.com.

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