In The Black Guelph, John Connors, said to be the first filmmaker to come from the ethno-cultural group called Irish Travellers, dramatizes the blight of childhood sexual abuse, imagining a dense tapestry of hurt in which one boy’s victimization by a priest transforms into enough crime, addiction and anger over decades to wreck a small community. Intriguing characters and elements of crime fiction prevent the film from being a dour slog, but there’s not much hope to be found here, especially for victims who, due to payoffs and court-ordered silence, can never share their trauma with an outraged public.
Commercial prospects may be hurt a bit by the film’s needlessly obscure title, whose reference to 14th-century Italian history will be lost on most viewers unless they have access to producers’ notes (which also explain, kind of, the meaning of drawing characters’ names from Dante’s Inferno). The (clearly unintended) implication is that such comparisons are needed to lend gravity to the intense and well-known pain of victims of Catholic priests. But the film’s action says exactly what it means to, no literary or historical references required.
The Black Guelph
The Bottom Line
Effective and tightly woven.
Graham Earley plays Kanto, the leader of a small-time crew of drug dealers in an unnamed seaside town. Estranged from his wife for the reasons you’d expect, he’s genuinely heartbroken — especially about being kept from his infant daughter — but unable to fix the personal chaos that got him thrown out.
Meanwhile, Kanto’s much-absent father Dan (Paul Roe) straggles into town (maybe fresh from jail) and begins to squat in an abandoned orphanage. We’ll learn this was his childhood home; that he has come in hopes of ending the shame borne from his time here. He befriends Virgil (Tony Doyle), a college astrophysics student who comes to the darkened property to see further with his telescope. The young man brings him to the boat he calls home, where his mother Beatrice (Denise McCormack, playing an addict attempting to stay clean) offers what hospitality she can.
Nobody connects the dots, but Bea is a sometime customer of Dan’s son. And she’s about to suffer for that: Kanto owes money to a powerful local thug (played by the director), and he will soon make the rounds bullying those who owe him cash. (An encounter with another good-for-nothing dad, who abuses his own wife and neglects his kid when Kanto comes to collect, inspires a rare moment of clarity for the gangster, showing him all the things the movie wants to communicate to us.)
Dan has also come back to town to settle legal affairs arising from his abuse. A very ugly courtroom scene shows the defense trying to discredit him, citing his criminal record as proof he can’t be trusted. Without dwelling on it, Roe (the soulful standout in a uniformly strong cast) shows how this encounter with deceitful authority briefly makes Dan as helpless and ashamed as he was as a boy.
Knowing things about yourself is not the same as being able to put the knowledge into action. Dan’s efforts to make peace with his son, and to connect with caring strangers, look doomed to fail. Too much time has passed for the 50-ish man, and his son has learned the lessons of neglect too well to change. Would it help these people, or the uncountable real victims they represent, to have the details of every crime made public and hold every institution accountable for the criminals they protected? Real justice is impossible to deliver at this point. But in Dan’s actions, the film wants to see hope that we can at least stop damage from propagating to the next generation. As unsatisfying as that may be, it’s far better than what we get from secret cash settlements and quiet impunity.