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Holy Island, the second feature from Robert Manson, is a fascinating, sometimes willfully obtuse story of two travellers on a layover between life and The Great Beyond. Manson offers up plenty of striking imagery in this ambling mood piece.
David (Conor Madden and Dermot Murphy) is trying to catch a ferry from a town with no name to an unknown destination. He wanders through empty streets in no particular hurry. His shoulder bag dangles lifelessly, matching his own enthusiasm for the journey ahead.
David is a vision of tiredness, baggy eyed and heavy lidded. He looks like a Robert Mitchum impersonator you’d hire to serve drinks at a party. David is not the seeker detective of so many hard-boiled Mitchum pictures, even if Holy Island sometimes feels like an out-of-the-past potboiler bubbling over with questions with no clear answers.
At the ferry terminal, David encounters a series of increasingly puzzling situations. Characters speak in a deliberate one-line-at-a-time rhythm. Everyone waits their turn to speak. They pause between dialogue for longer than is necessary, waiting for a laugh track that doesn’t come. It has that unnatural feeling of a filmed play, or the moments in between title cards in a silent film. Lips move, but the words do little to illuminate David’s situation.
The ferry terminal is frozen in time. Passengers sleep in the waiting area. An old man tells a shaggy dog story to David as they wait. In the background an attendant, or maybe a passenger, polishes the same section of glass over and over. The terminal building is one big wind-up toy. David enters a room, the characters do some schtick. He leaves and they wait for the next traveller. Still polishing the window, telling the same story, snoring on an endless loop.
David’s ticket number is 13, with all the luck that brings. After a one-sided passport inspection and interview, David is told that he needs to go to another ferry terminal. There he meets Rosa (Jeanne Nicole Ní Áinle), a fellow traveller, who like David is going nowhere fast. Rosa speaks in questions but also instructions. She knows the ins and outs of things a little better than David and leads the way for him through the snaking corridors of the ferry terminal.
Rosa, like everyone else around, seems to be a step ahead of David. She already knows the answers to the rapid-fire questions she poses to her newfound, ever-bewildered, sleepyhead travelling companion.
Holy Island encapsulates the limbo of a delayed flight, a bumper-to-bumper traffic jam or a missed shuttle-bus transfer. That sinking feeling of needing to be somewhere but the inability to get there is here, on-screen.
The ferry terminal closes for the day and Rosa and David head into town for the night. Rosa does something to David, and the film. Her presence breathes life into the world around her. Colour encroaches on the film’s black and white photography. These flashes of colour are noticed even by the characters themselves.
In one sequence Rosa dances to a tune whistled on the wind. The camera cuts from close shots of Rosa swaying to the music to David’s point of view. Through David’s eyes Rosa appears in colour.
We cut from colourised Ciné film style footage of Rosa to wider shots of David and Rosa dancing to the music. The tune is strange, not catchy or danceable, but the pair make a good go of it. Rosa, always more enthusiastic, takes the lead. David sways his arms with little thought or care for the choreography.
Then we move to wider shots of the pair dancing, the music is louder on the soundtrack and David’s dancing starts to sync up with Rosa. Sporadic bursts of energy like this are as close as Holy Island comes to offering traditional cinematic spectacle.
Later, David transforms into a younger, more forceful version of himself played by Dermot Murphy (The Drummer and the Keeper) and we see a variation on the dance sequence. This time, David takes the lead, throwing himself around the scene in a previously unimaginable display of energetic physicality.
David’s dual casting is a direct nod to Luis Buñuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire, in which the Flamenco dancer Conchita is played by two different actors. Rosa remains the same; her role as a guide and compass for David is unchanging.
Gradually, it becomes apparent that Rosa and David may share more than a travel destination. Their lives seem to echo each other in curious ways. David’s regrets over his past failings run parallel to Rosa’s present circumstances.
Much of the film is spent with Rosa and David as they hang out and waste time together by the sea or in the boarded-up and rundown coastal village. The beach looks like “a landscape in a dream” to Rosa; the town, by contrast, looks like the afterimage of a long waking-nightmare.
But even as David finds himself renewed as a younger version of himself, the world around is still confusing, his destination unreachable. Rosa and David sit on a beach on the outskirts of town. They look out to sea but cannot see anything on the horizon. They seem trapped between this world and the next. That place beyond the horizon is covered by clouds and the shimmer of distant waves.
The world around them offers as few answers as the characters they encounter. The whitewashed buildings and desolate landscape call to my mind Antonioni’s films of discontent. Throughout the film, Manson employs archival footage of a resort town from the 1970s. Maybe they’re echoes of the town’s recent past, or they could be alternative views of its present, based on the payphones and frozen-in-time iconography.
In Holy Island’s penultimate sequence, Manson inserts footage of a day at the fairground; the rides are a blur of action, and the camera struggles to take it all in. The leisurely, measured pace of Manson’s direction is disrupted by the over-excited archive reels. In these moments we see the promise of what lies ahead, or the solace in what we still have around us in the world of the living.
Holy Island is in cinemas nationwide from 14 October.