Belfast’s first scene establishes the sense of community that preceded the violence the broke out in Belfast, 1969: In one immaculate long, the camera swoops through a street, following people who are shouting for a Buddy (the incredibly photogenic Jude Hill), a nine year old boy who lives on the street. The amount of people all searching for him: relatives, friends, friends of friends, immediately establishes a firm sense of community. The unbroken shot enables this sense of community to be established immediately as it explores the street in detail, subtly winding around around people of the neighbourhood. It isn’t flashy, but it’s effectiveness in establishing the feeling of a small neighbourhood is timed perfectly as we are able to relate to these people as a whole; as their peace is soon to be shattered. Tension between Catholics and Protestant radicals erupts early into the film without warning as we see neighbours and friends suddenly turn on each other in the name of religion. Most of this is seen through the lens of a child’s eye, Buddy, which proves to be an incredibly effective tool to tell a story that needs telling.
The nonsensical horror affects Buddy’s family as the film documents the suffering caused by the violence while not depicting much action. Despite being on the right ‘side’ of religion in their particular area as it puts Buddy’s father (a solid Jamie Dornan) in a tough situation where he is expected to fight as violently as the rest of the men on his street. His refusal makes Buddy’s family a consistent target in numerous ways, past the direct verbal threats are less direct ways of intimidation that make the family’s life miserable. Pa, who already works in England, is keen to leave but his wife is steadfast: All she knows is Belfast, and she does not want to leave.
The commentary on organised religion throughout the film is obvious, but this is forgivable for a number of reasons: almost all the scepticism is from the mouth of Buddy, purely through his natural, innocent sense of curiosity. He is unaware of the complexities but sharp enough to know something isn’t right, prompting a barrage of ‘whys’. This comic relief is more than a reprieve from the bleak reality, some lines cut deep with truth, often in hysterical fashion. It doesn’t try to preach to either side, it simply features a curious boy unintentionally skewering the hypocrisies of modern religion by simply seeking the truth to what is happening around him.
Both groups of people go to Church, Buddy reasons. What makes them different? It all feels incredibly natural, and certainly is helped by its most memorably funny scene being that of a preacher foaming at the mouth as he delivers his sermon on good and evil, which while slightly exaggerated, certainly isn’t far from the truth. For during the era of this film though it seems apt; one can only imagine what church sermons truly felt like at the time. It is the only time the film overly hints at a anti-religion bias.
Interestingly, Buddy isn’t a real protagonist for much of the film, far more an observer. His questioning of religion aren’t the reason for what is erupting around him, but in a sense Buddy is the protagonist for the audience’s heartstrings. This proves to be a double-edge sword as the photogenic young Jude Hill, his eyes especially, are arguably overused in close ups that may lead some feeling it is manipulative.
Belfast does have a faint smell of Oscar bait, however it doesn’t play to any current politically correct trends, unlike many recent Oscar nominees/winners. If anything, taking aim at religion can be risky. This doesn’t hold Belfast back, but its soundtrack does. Rarely does a soundtrack fail in such a noticeable way, but hearing existing songs from the 60’s rather than an original score ruined the atmosphere numerous times. Nearly every track feels disconnected from the film and can have the same negative effect on the viewer’s experience.
Belfast immaculately captures the meaningless cruelty humanity is capable of in the name of religion, presenting it in a largely unbiased way via a child’s curiosity, leaving any concrete judgement to the viewer as well as avoiding, one would hope, talking about religion in an inoffensive or blasphemous fashion. It is impressive in this regard, and with its comic scenes and smooth, black and white look, it is a fantastic film about a subject that needs a memorable experience like this to illustrate its historical importance. If only a composer had been employed… this could have been the best drama of the year. I very well could be in the minority on the last point though as it received an enthusiastic round of applause, something that simply doesn’t happen often down under. The positive reaction at this festival is sure to lead to a financially successful Australian release
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