All Souls' Day (1997)

D: Alan Gilsenan
S: Declan Conlon, Jayne Snow

This film is a blur. Shot in a variety of formats, including Super 8mm and Super 16mm film, making use of monochromatic tinting and deliberately keeping its images out of focus, physically; All Soul's Day is a blur. Likewise its narrative is deliberately fragmented, a Last Year at Marienbad ish meander through the vagaries of memory and meaning intended to confound and confuse its audience and draw them in to the heart of a chilling mystery. A grieving mother interviews the killer of her daughter in a prison chapel and tries to get to the facts about what really happened. The story unfolds in between a series of intensely personal revelations from both characters, intersped with footage of prisoners rehearsing for a variety stage show with acts including juggling, telling dirty jokes and singing songs from Hollywood musicals.

But like all confusing objects seen during momentary lapses in visual integrity, once your vision clears, it is something very simple. All Soul's Day is a dramatically asinine piece of self-indulgent stylistic masturbation which is likely to tour the festival circuit to great acclaim. The sad reality is that it is only difficult to watch because it is boring, not because it makes demands on the intelligence and intellectual engagement of the audience.

It's not that it doesn't do what it sets out to do. It successfully investigates notions of subjectivity and questions our concept of meaning and narrative. It deliberately sets out to argue that stories are inherently coloured by the perception of both the storyteller and the listener, and often they don't mean the same thing to both. It opens with a quote from Oscar Wilde which tells us "All life is a limitation" (which is also the movie's advertising blurb). It seems as if conventional cinema has proved a limitation to Gilsenan, who, having made a series of excellent documentaries, has made what is obviously an intensely personal film which attempts to push the boundaries of the medium. It is an attempt to explore the limits of narrative and psychological subjectivity, a spiritual exorcism of the moral questions which must be asked of any documentarist in the age of postmodernism.

But while nothing quite like it has been seen on Irish screens, the film ultimately boils down to a cross between Last Year at Marienbad and The Vanishing, and its debts to European art-house and avant-garde cinema are quite considerable. But it isn't as strong or as interesting as even either of those titles, largely because the script is composed of a series of dreadfully clichéd 'meaningful' exchanges, like Bergman without the clarity. It never manages to surprise or to engage the viewer, and its insights are generally pithy and adolescent. It often seems like a student film rather than the work of a mature director.

It is important to any national cinema that it maintains an active avant-garde, and All Souls' Day is an earnest attempt to contribute to one for Irish cinema. As such, it deserves recognition and acknowledgement. But Gilsenan's box of cinematic tricks is ultimately too limited to sustain a full feature film, and while polite applause is due for the effort, and no one, least of all me, would deny an artist his chance to express himself, there is absolutely no reason anyone would need to see this movie.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.