In 1939 William Franklin, an anti-Franco veteran of the bloody Spanish Civil War, arrives as first-ever lay teacher in a strict Catholic Reformatory and Industrial School for wayward boys. He soon learns the academic challenge is formidable, many boys being still illiterate, but gradually earns their trust, respect, in time almost devotion, with 'paternal' kindness, making the layman the opposite of the cruel prefect, brother John, who frequently administers painful and humiliating punishments, even the gentle, old superior Father Damian has no authority against his disciplinary mandate from the grim bishop Conlon. Slowly even class rebel Liam Mercier is turned around, trough his gift for literature. After Franklin dares stop the sadist's penny-weighted strap severely striking 'sinful scum' for a futility, the whole dorm is treated to an icy night outdoors, arms outstretched wearing only shorts. Brother Mac's mind may mean to educate well, his flesh is too weak for celibacy, so the ...Written by
A neatly packaged if somewhat overtly concise perspective on Irish Industrial schools
I'd been skirting past this one in the video shop for ages wondering whether it was gonna be too depressing and harrowingly sad to sit through.
And before continuing I have to say I love the Irish characters that Aidan Quinn has created from Playboys, thru This is My father and Harry Boland in Michael Collins - all characters you can empathize with and truly feel their pain, largely, it must be said, because of the projection of Quinns acting.
The only Irish "reform school" I've ever visited is the building that used to house Letterfrack Industrial School in Co Galway, now (somewhat ironically considering some of the scenes in SFaRB) a fine arts furniture college. But to say that the building is still haunted by the ghosts of the boys and the pain and abuse inflicted there is an understatement. It literally oozes and sweats from the very walls of the former institution, defying every admirable attempt by the current education guardians to drag it into the present and positively project its glorious current use.
And so, whilst what is effectively a "year in the life" of this particular unidentified industrial school, does manage to capture in a nutshell much of this pain, and instill in the audience a huge anger at what was perpetuated in these places in both the name of reform and religion, somewhere in the back of ones mind there is a discomfort that it's all being just a bit too neatly packaged, summarized and concluded for the benefit of Hollywood and the happy ending with a massive nod to Dead Poets Society when in reality, as still continues to be daily documented in the Irish courts and tribunals of Inquiry and media reports into such abuse, this was not and sadly never would be something that one brave and progressive teacher might have hope to take on and buck the system - As the tragic caption at the end points out, this system of education and authority with all it's abuses persisted in Ireland right up to 1984 and along it way produced such brilliant and brave people Don Baker, Paddy Doyle (The God Squad), Colm O'Gorman and Mannix Flynn but equally claimed as victims such brilliant and capable people as Noel Browne, and probably most tragically, the graveyard and unmarked graves behind Letterfrack college bears testament to the many many young boys that shed their very lives to these institutions - So to try to imply (for whatever feel good factor and positive connotations it gains) that one man may have successfully stood up to this system during the first year of the "Emergency" in 1939/40 and everything was hunky Dorey after that and the authorities and the church sat up and took notice, is just too syrupy of a picture and a quick fix solution when one is sadly aware that the tragic reality is far removed and some 50 odd years away from that - and whilst it was admittedly a very good picture, this simplistic portrayal of a huge and continuing Irish problem, served to tarnish rather than endow the film as a whole.
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