9th Jameson Belfast Film Festival review
Irish filmmaker Bob Quinn claims that Vox Humana (Notes For A Small Opera) is likely to be his last work in a long career in public broadcasting, documentary and independent filmmaking that has always operated outside the mainstream, based as it has been more recently in marginal areas of the Irish-language speaking West of Ireland. And, in contrast to much of his work which he believes were to a large extent were driven by anger, the motivation for the making Vox Humana was out of love. That much is evident in Quinn’s use of Baroque music that fills this film, infusing it with warmth and beauty, but the director’s anger is still there and its unlikely expression through the medium of that music only makes it all the more effective.
That’s because the music in the film, from Handel, Rachmaninov and Bruckner to choral arrangements of Christmas hymns and carols is not merely used as a background soundtrack, but is fully integrated into the drama of the film, making it indeed in a way something of a “small opera”. It’s the heavenly sound of this music, sung by the Galway Baroque Singers performing at a concert in Dublin that causes homeless alcoholic and petty thief Luke (Luke Cauldwell) to pause from his counting of the money in the wallet he has just stolen, no doubt from one of the wealthy music lovers, but only long enough to smuggle himself in the luggage compartment of the bus that will bring the choir back to Galway, Luke’s own native city.
A connection has been triggered in Luke however and it’s something that gradually grows and sees an outlet in an unusual form, as he subsequently wanders homeless through the streets of Galway, having failed to appease his estranged wife Christina (Triona Lillis) and son Christy (Dominic Ó Cuinn). Music seems to be everywhere in Luke’s life, but like that life, Luke is detached from it. An accomplished drummer, Luke once turned down the chance to work with U2 – although how much you can trust what Luke says is doubtful, particularly when that story is related in voice-over by his daughter, a daughter who has been tragically killed in an accident. This of course is the key incident that has had such a negative impact on Luke’s life and his state of mind, but having heard the music of Galway Baroque Singers, Luke starts to make a connection to other people once again through music. It’s only in a small way, busking with his son on the street, hearing his wife audition for a job, but a shot at some kind of redemption through music comes when he makes an unspoken identification with one of the girls in the choir and is offered a small part in a forthcoming concert by the Choir’s conductor (Audrey Corbett).
Filmed on handheld digital in a “home video” approach, with fine natural performances, Vox Humana consequently has a down-to-earth immediacy and intimacy that prevents it from getting too caught up in warmth, forgiveness and scenic footage of the impressive Galway locations. When little is spoken and much is expressed through that music and imagery that has it own innate power, it’s vital that Vox Humana retains this edge in order to draw other elements out of it. Luke’s situation may be contrasted with the pervasive Baroque choral arrangements, yet in spite of the contrasts there are common qualities that Bob Quinn is able to find in this unusual and sometimes uncomfortable counterpoint – an underlying belief in the humanity of his characters that is expressed in the beauty of what can be created by human voices - the vox humana of the title - working together in harmony. How easy it is for a life to go off the rails, yet how easy it could be to show compassion, understanding and reach out a helping hand.
Bob Quinn’s films are available on DVD from his Conamara.org website