Reviewed by Mark Deming

Opening a movie theater in a small town in the 1950s wouldn’t seem like something that would generate much controversy, but that’s not how things play out in the new film Stella Days. Of course, the fact that the theater is opening in an Irish hamlet that’s still being wired for electricity, or that the project is spearheaded by the priest of the local church, has a certain amount to do with people’s mixed feelings about the arrival of the movies. But if Stella Days feels like a minor culture-clash comedy in its early reels, it soon sets out for deeper waters, and slowly transforms into a warm and compelling drama about faith, duty, love, and one’s sense of purpose, anchored by a subtle but powerful performance from Martin Sheen.

Stella Days takes place in the mid-’50s in Borrisokane in County Tipperary, where Father Daniel Barry (Sheen) looks after a small flock. Daniel was born in Borrisokane, but he studied in the United States and spent several years at the Vatican library in Rome. He’s an intelligent and sophisticated man who clearly feels out of place in his old hometown; he hears the same confessions over and over and feels frustrated with the limitations of country life.

Father Barry is looking forward to returning to Rome after three years, but Bishop Hegerty (Tom Hickey) has other ideas -- he’s decided Father Barry should stay and raise the funds to build a new church that will be a center for the community. Father Barry is not pleased with this news, since he has little talent for persuading his parishioners to contribute more money or buy more raffle tickets. However, when he hires a young man from Dublin named Tim Lynch (Trystan Gravelle) to teach at the parochial school, he discovers they share a passion for the movies, and they hit upon a fund-raising idea -- turn one of the church halls into a screening room and bring the cinema to Borrisokane. Some of the locals are excited by this prospect, but the bishop believes films can be a negative moral influence and is quite wary of the notion, while local politician Brendan McSweeney (Stephen Rea) not only agrees with the bishop, but also thinks Father Barry has been a poor spiritual leader who is disinterested in the needs and values of his congregation. Having Lynch as an ally becomes even more problematic for the priest when Tim rents a room from Molly Phelan (Marcella Plunkett), a woman with a young son whose inattentive husband is working in England. Tim and Molly fall in love and have an affair, which attracts the attention of local gossips, and when Molly’s son begins asking Father Barry questions about how he became a priest, it forces him to look into his own past and the nature of his own faith, leading to an emotional crisis that has consequences beyond himself.

As Stella Days opens, electrical lines are being erected in Borrisokane for the first time, and Father Barry is helping to promote the idea that electric stoves are safe and worthwhile and not a sinful intrusion on their way of life. One quickly gathers that Borrisokane is a town where change is not greeted with enthusiasm, and director Thaddeus O’Sullivan portrays the community with affection but no sentimentality; this is a place where a forward-thinking man will be at odds with those around him, and that is the key to Stella Days and the character of Father Barry. Martin Sheen plays the priest as a man whose compassion is often at war with his sense of pride, and he isn’t afraid to talk down to those around him at times, reminding us that Father Barry has his own flaws that he hasn’t worked out as he tries to deal with the problems of others. While Stephen Rea often overplays as Barry’s nemesis, Tom Hickey is funny and intimidating as the bishop who understands the priest’s strengths and weaknesses at every turn, and turns out to have a more pragmatic temperament than he lets on. Trystan Gravelle is strong and likable as the impulsive but ambitious young teacher, and Marcella Plunkett impresses as the lonely woman who falls for him. Director of photography John Christian Rosenlund gives the movie a look that’s pleasing but well-detailed and realistic, while director O’Sullivan and screenwriter Antoine O’ Flatharta take what could have been a slight story and give it a rich treatment that weaves faith, politics, and the heart into the schemes of two dreamers who love the cinema. Stella Days is a very pleasant surprise that’s stronger than one might expect without exceeding its reach, and it’s well-worth seeing.

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  • Released: 2011
  • Rating: NR
  • Review: Opening a movie theater in a small town in the 1950s wouldn’t seem like something that would generate much controversy, but that’s not how things play out in the new film Stella Days. Of course, the fact that the theater is opening in an Irish hamlet that’… (more)

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