An Cailín Ciúin and the beauty of a quiet story

There are three lights now.

I”m just back from seeing the magnificent An Cailín Ciúin a second time. I first watched it when it was released and came briefly to cinemas last year, and when it returned in recent weeks on the heels of a well-deserved Oscar nomination for Best International Film, I was eager to see it again.

And as I watched this tender, heartbreaking, lovely film about a vulnerable, neglected girl from a large family who is sent away for the summer to a childless couple where she begins to blossom under their love and care, I kept thinking about the beauty of a quiet story.

This isn’t a film with a lot going on — major events include setting a biscuit on the table, running down the driveway to check the mail, and taking a bath — and yet it so beautifully builds a home and a family that the audience, like the protagonist, doesn’t want to leave.

It’s incredibly difficult, in my opinion, to write a quiet story — an action-filled plot can get by with plenty of bombastic events, but a quiet story requires, to quote Emily St. John Mandel on the subject:

a distilled quality about them, an unshowy thoughtfulness and a sense of grace, of having been boiled down to the bare essentials

On the Pleasures and Solitudes of Quiet Books

Claire Keegan, who wrote the short story ‘Foster’ on which An Cailín Ciúin was based, is a master of the quiet story. A few months ago I read her stunning novella Small Things Like These, and again I was struck by her ability to bring such heart and empathy to the story and the characters.

Maybe it’s something about Irish writers, because another undisputed master of quiet stories is Donal Ryan. I recently read his latest novel, The Queen of Dirt Island, which follows four generations of women in a family living in rural Tipperary. Nothing much happens to them as they grow up and grow old, and this is even a point of contention within the plot itself, whether their lives need embellishment to be compelling. Ryan proves, in a novel composed of two-page vignettes that feel perfectly paced and exactly the right length, that their lives are engrossing just as they are.

Of course, Ireland doesn’t have a monopoly on quiet stories. Home by Marilynne Robinson, The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, Department of Speculation by Jenny Offil, Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller, and Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto are a few other favourites.

When it comes to film, it’s impossible not to mention Richard Linklater’s Before (Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight) trilogy, but especially the first film — two people walking and talking has never been more absorbing. Then there’s Lady Bird (dir. Greta Gerwig), which I will never get tired of watching Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland, the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llwelyn Davies, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, and Sean Baker’s The Florida Project are other examples of film that have been exemplary in their strength and their quietness.

One of the amazing things about a well-crafted quiet story is how it can keep you riveted as well as any thriller. Quiet stories can definitely be soothing or relaxing, but often you find yourself so invested in the characters and their lives, even when the situations seem like they should be slow or mundane. In An Cailín Ciúin, when the neighbour walks Cáit home from the wake, or when Cáit goes to get a broom to help Seán in the barn, you will somehow find yourself on the edge of your seat waiting to find out what happens next in these everyday moments.

I don’t know what An Cailín Ciúin‘s chances are at the Academy Awards, as it’s up against Germany’s All Quiet on the Western Front, which is also up for Best Picture overall, as well as a number of other films from Argentina, Belgium, and Poland, that I’m sure are also excellent. But if you get the chance to see the film, which is the first Irish language film nominated for an Oscar and which has become the highest-grossing Irish language film of all time, I highly recommend it. Embrace its quietness, and let yourself be enveloped by this soft and beautiful story.


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