AFTER BEING force-fed a steady diet of quaint Irish characters in pop culture -- everything from "The Quiet Man" to commercials for deodorant soap ("Manly, yes, but I like it too!") to the weepy "Dancing at Lughnasa" -- many of us with apostrophes in our names have developed Toxic Shamrock Syndrome: an allergic reaction to all things kelly green.
So imagine my early reaction to "This Is My Father": after a quick introduction to the bitter, empty life of Irish American Kieran Johnson (James Caan), the lonely history teacher from Aurora, Ill., finds himself back on the Auld Sod in search of the long-lost father he never knew. His mom, played by Francoise Graton, is back home recuperating from a stroke. The first person Kieran meets is a twinkly-eyed leprechaun of a bed-and-breakfast proprietor named Seamus Kearney (Colm Meaney), who offers his guest a plate of blood pudding (don't ask) along with a hearty "Jay-sus, Mary and Joseph" thrown in for good measure.
Did I mention that Seamus's mother (Moira Deady) is a twinkly-eyed fortune teller and that there's an ancient curse (or "course," as she pronounces it) on Kieran's family?
Gag me with a shillelagh.
I'm here to report, fortunately, that the movie goes waaaaay uphill from here -- and not a moment too soon, I might add.
Almost immediately we flash back 60 years to 1939, as the aged narrator Mrs. Kearney tears into the real meat of "Father": the story of doomed love between Kieran's mother Fiona (Moya Farrelly), a wild 17-year-old sent home from boarding school for "havin' it off with a university student," and the reclusive misfit Kieran O'Day (Aidan Quinn doing his best Hibernian Quasimodo).
Not exactly a match made in heaven, but hey, we can't pick our fathers (or anyone whom we love for that matter).
Fiona is a free-spirited beauty and Kieran is an orphaned loser living with an elderly couple. With the sides of his head shaved to the skin and a hang-dog posture as he bends over the peat bogs, Quinn's O'Day looks more than a little doltish, but his very oddness just endears him to Fiona more, who is herself an outcast.
Complicating the budding romance is O'Day's age (it's never specified, but Quinn is already 40). In the eyes of the community O'Day is robbing the cradle, and an unclean one at that.
The real villain of "This Is My Father" is not the small-minded village but that repressive brand of Irish Catholicism typified by the dour Father Quinn (a demented-looking Stephen Rea), who rails marvelously during one particularly brimstone-laden sermon, "The true idiots are those now burning for all eternity in the fires of helllllll!!"
His colleague in redemption, Father Mooney (Eamonn Morrissey), rides around town on a bicycle with cassock flapping in the wind like the Wicked Witch of the West.
Eventually, the impure thoughts of the lovers turn into those impure activities which lead to, as they say, a bun in the oven. (Don't yell at me for spoiling the movie; after all, it's not called "This Is My Stockbroker.") But the town and the Church won't let them marry. If you get the feeling this can't be a good thing, you're right.
Written and directed by first-timer Paul Quinn (Aidan's brother) and handsomely photographed by sib Declan, "This Is My Father" is a real labor of love (the three brothers also share co-executive producer credits).
Their unpretentious sense of family permeates what might easily be corny material, rendering in heartfelt fashion a simple message of the importance of remembering ancestors and the power gained by acknowledging the echoes of their long-gone lives in our own.
THIS IS MY FATHER (R, 120 minutes) -- Contains profanity, brawling and sexual situations. At the Cineplex Odeon Avalon.