Directed by Viko Nikci. Starring Karen Hassan, Catherine Walker, Mark O’Halloran, Ian McElhinney.
The Plot: Aidie (Karen Hassan) is a young woman whose memory has fractured. She relives similar memories over and over again, in the hope of finding out the truth about the disappearance of a son that she may or may not have had. First, she wakes up in a bathtub and then talks to her mother. Later she swoons over a passionate romance with a young man. Then she finds herself in a convent for troubled girls, ruled over by Sister Bly (Catherine Walker) and Father Kassel (Mark O’Halloran). A home for girls with problems with time, as one character puts it. As she retraces her memories, she starts to remember more and the picture comes into focus…
The Verdict: What’s the last thing you remember? It’s an oft-repeated line from Irish film Cellar Door, a striking and singular feature debut from writer/director Viko Nikci. For this reviewer, the last thing he remembers about this film was the way the moving ending was so carefully woven into what came before. Up to that point, it wasn’t entirely clear where the film was going. This is a film that requires patience for it to gradually unravel and come into sharper focus, much like Aidie’s story itself. That was presumably the intention of Nikci – to put you in Aidie’s shoes, a potentially unreliable narrator and follow her story until its purpose and message hits home.
Is Aidie having memory problems? Is she suffering from a mental illness? There are no easy answers here, which adds to the enigmatic atmosphere enveloping this film. The story was inspired by the Magdalene Laundries, which need no introduction. It’s enough to state that the film is a subjective account of a woman fighting against herself and the Church to revive memories that might have been suppressed by higher powers. Surely a woman can remember giving birth? Nikci achieves all this in a delicate way, suggesting that the long-lasting power and, alas, frailty of human memory is what ultimately defines us and our journeys through life.
It’s a gripping film from the outset. Nikci plunges you into Aidie’s troubled world, replaying scenes from different perspectives. It’s crucial to these perspectives that there’s a lead actor who can emote well and maintain audience sympathy even when her character is passionate but distant. Hassan does a tremendous job of keeping you guessing throughout, a difficult enough task given the complexities of the character. She does it an effortless way though. She shows shades of depth and range in her powerful performance, with an expressive face that hints at a lot more going on behind those soulful eyes.
Cellar Door won the Best First Irish Feature at last year’s Galway Film Fleadh and it’s not hard to see why. It takes as its subject something so troubling from Ireland’s dark past and then turns it into something so life-affirming that it resonates after the credits roll. The recent Black 47, for its all ambition, wasn’t able to do that successfully. Cellar Door takes a while to warm to, as the audience is not entirely sure if what we’re watching is real, imagined or a tainted memory. However, the film does come together in the end and rewards patience. That’s rare in these short attention span days. A confident debut film that is worth remembering and is as haunting as it is beautifully made.