Brooklyn

Brooklyn, the movie, based on the book by Colm Toibin is a saga of Eilis, a young woman whose immigration from small-town Ireland to Brooklyn, USA in the late 1940s-early 1950s is arranged and facilitated by Fr. Flood, a priest known by her family who may have previously been active as a priest in Ireland, and is now serving as a parish priest in Brooklyn.

Thanks to Fr. Flood, Eilis has a spot in an all-girls’ boarding house, the respectability (read strictness) of which provides a home base under the supervision of a nosy house mother where non-marital sexual activity is unlikely to occur, except for the trusted, seemingly pure girl who later on in the story gets the basement apartment with its own private door.

Father Flood has a kindly demeanor about him, and serves as a “spiritual father” in the best sense of the word: Eilis regards him as a father figure, turning to him for a shoulder to cry on and what turns out to be wise advice when she is overcome with homesickness and a sort of survivor guilt after arrival.  Her good fortune came at a price: her mother and sister were left behind in Ireland with a subprime future at best, a subtle undercurrent of unfairness at worst, with the realization that her sister would have been left with the duty of caring for her mother in old age, without a choice in the matter. Once past this, she starts to assimilate into American culture such as it was in the circumscribed world of boardinghouse, job, and parish within Brooklyn. This is brilliantly shown visually by the fact that she wears a deep green coat in Ireland, on board the ship, and shortly after her arrival, but midway through the movie, switches to a red one as she becomes further Americanized.  She also starts out pure and seemingly uptight, agast at meeting a bold, and to her sensibility, tarty, somewhat older woman as her cabin mate while on shipboard. By the end of the movie, having gone back to Ireland temporarily due to her sister’s untimely death, on her voyage back to the USA, she becomes an experienced mentor to a similarly innocent young girl leaving Ireland for the first time, completing the cycle.) Though volunteering to work for Father Flood’s parish projects, including a stint serving Christmas dinner and cleaning up after drunks at a soup kitchen he runs, is the price she pays for Father Flood having arranged things so carefully for her, it is through one of his parish dances that she meets the young Italian-American man she would later marry in a civil ceremony.  (Besides having been a fixer for a job, boarding house, and means to career advancement, the priest indirectly plays Cupid as well, the parish dances being a means for the young adults of the geographical area to meet fellow marriageable Catholics.) The dating process proves to be interesting, as Italian culture proves exotic (yet still safely Catholic) while she learns to eat spaghetti neatly and that ethnic slurs between groups of different ethnic extractions in America are merely name-calling and teasing, compared with the serious ethnic and religious discrimination which left a legacy of hunger, desperation, and mistrust in Ireland. This movie uses every visual shorthand for “Catholic in the ’50s” that can be found. From worn-thin mantillas promptly crumpled into a ball upon leaving church, to priests with fiddleback vestments, to garter stockings, and antique cars, it is a feast for the eyes if not the mind.  A small town in modern-day Ireland was effectively converted to a set for a small town in 1950s Ireland.  Fade-to-black and sweeping panorama transitions condense into brief moments in cinema what must have been stacks of pages in the book.

When Eilis had left Ireland for the USA, her career and romantic options in the “ould sod” were extremely limited: a very part-time job clerking as extra help on Sundays with the local grocer, an older woman whom her mother considered a pernicious busybody, and a “club man” romantic interest who was just out of her reach.  The death of her sister combined with the bookkeeping classes led to her taking over her sister’s old job temporarily, and being offered it permanently, and the coming-together of families for her sister’s funeral led to her crossing paths with her former flame once again, and being put in a position to get to know him better as a person beneath the slick exterior.  People she knows back in Ireland persuade her to delay her planned departure back to America, and though her sister has already been buried by the time she arrives, she stays on for a few months to have the opportunity to attend the Catholic wedding of her best friend and former parish dance buddy. A future life back home in Ireland not only seems in the realm of the possible to Eilis, but beckons in the eyes of those around her, except for her former employer, who reminds her that while the world may seem like a big place, news from America, such as that of her civil marriage,  has its ways of getting back to even their little town in Ireland, where it could be used to overturn any romantic designs she might have there and ostracize her as far as society and her job were concerned by the public and ecclesiastical sanctions against her perceived sinfulness and de facto bigamy. If she was undergoing any doubts or second thoughts as to where she should settle, or with whom she should partner, to escape the pernicious hold of this blackmail and its potential to ruin her ability to build the life back in Ireland which seemed to be under construction, Eilis had to return to America, to stay.

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