'I Am Belfast': Karlovy Vary Review

I am Belfast Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Hopscotch Films

I am Belfast Still - H 2015

An arty, eccentric, bittersweet love letter to the city that built the Titanic.

Northern Irish director Mark Cousins freewheels through his home city's dark past and bright future in this offbeat cinematic essay.

Returning to the city of his birth after 30 years away, director Mark Cousins (The Story of Film) takes a sentimental journey in his latest eccentric essay film. A blend of documentary, love letter and abstract visual poem, I Am Belfast feels more disciplined and polished than some of the low-budget auteur's previous scrappy travelogues. Arty visuals from ace Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle (In The Mood For Love, Rabbit-Proof Fence) plus a rich score by locally born composer David Holmes, best known for his extensive work with Steven Soderbergh, amplify the overall sense of a glossy collaborative package.

The conceit of I Am Belfast is that the city is a wily middle-aged woman, played by Helena Bereen, who has seen both triumph and tragedy over her 100-century history. As she wanders the city, probing its hidden corners and half-forgotten folklore, Bereen's matriarchal heroine weighs up Belfast's painful past and more hopeful present in disembodied voiceover. Making its international debut in Karlovy Vary last week following a hometown premiere, this quirky passion project is very much festival fare, but should travel widely thanks to its author's track record in cineaste circles.

In previous films, Cousins has developed a signature style which typically involves lengthy musings delivered in his quizzical, drowsy, mellifluous Northern Irish brogue, sometimes digressing into his latest reading matter or airline meal. At its worst, his method can feel like the random ramblings of a navel-gazing narcissist with no unpublished thoughts. Forever inserting himself into the narrative, both visually and verbally, Cousins is a shameless poster boy for Selfie Cinema.

Happily, I Am Belfast offers a modest stylistic step change, with more formal rigor and less tiresome exhibitionism than usual. Cousins cedes the majority of narration work to his leading lady, though Bereen is clearly still a mouthpiece for the director's own free-flowing observations, and he remains present as junior partner in their vocal double act. Honing in on the garrulous warmth, natural theatricality and bloody history of his home town, his insights alternate between profound and pretentious, beguiling and banal. A few are just adolescent gibberish, as when he brands Belfast "a crime scene, a rhyme scene, a time scene." Deep, dude.

Belfast was famously the birthplace of The Titanic, and Cousins makes the city's proud  shipbuilding past into one of his recurring motifs. There are references to the James Cameron movie, the recently opened Titanic museum, and the old local joke: "it was fine when it left here." When he comes to address the so-called "Troubles", the bloody political conflict which killed more than 3,500 people in Northern Ireland between the late 1960s and the late 1990s, Cousins uses another iceberg metaphor.

Refreshingly, I Am Belfast spends only 15 minutes on the Troubles, and is careful to avoid siding either with the mostly Catholic republicans or the broadly Protestant, pro-British unionists. Raised a Catholic but no longer a believer, Cousins is less interested in historical context than in the lingering physical reminders of war, from the incongruously colorful murals that commemorate deadly bombings to the towering Berlin-style "Peace Walls" that still divide the city.

In his climactic set-piece, Cousins stages a symbolic fantasy funeral looking forward to the momentous day when Belfast's last sectarian bigot dies. This is a whimsical piece of street theater, but also a humane and imaginative gesture. Meanwhile, Doyle contributes some vivid painterly images while Holmes provides an attractive backdrop of ambient undulations and celestial choirs, with occasional interjections by fellow local music legend Van Morrison. Cousins has an idiosyncratic directorial manner which still sometimes grates, but I Am Belfast is one of his more satisfying experiments, a charmingly offbeat tribute to a big-hearted city.

Production company: Hopscotch Films
Cast: Helena Bereen, Mark Cousins
Director, screenwriter: Mark Cousins
Cinematographers: Christopher Doyle, Mark Cousins
Editor: Timo Langer
Producers: John Archer, Chris Martin
Music: David Holmes
Sales company: Hopscotch Films, Glasgow
Unrated, 84 minutes