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Once: The Movie

Observer Scene | Friday, October 12, 2007

It is not often that the small, poorly publicized films capture the hearts of theatergoers – they rarely get the chance – but there are some that cannot be ignored. “Once” is one of those films. Realistic and romantic, “Once” offers something different to the audience. This Fox Searchlight Film is very different from your typical, canned flick. Much of its novelty stems from its focus on character development rather than plot twists. Though not much activity occurs in this movie, it constantly engages and intrigues. “Once” is a modern musical, in that it takes musical interludes – but it is not a grandiose, bright song-and-dance extravaganzas like “Chicago” or “Across the Universe.” The movie has the grainy, rough feel of an independent film. The songs are not drawn from the plot, either; instead, they are songs the main characters wrote while living through the experiences depicted on the screen and sing in realistic circumstances. There is no bursting into song in the middle of a street – unless they are busking and looking for change. The director, John Carney, cast singer/songwriters for the protagonists, not actors. Glen Hansard is the bass guitarist of Irish rock band The Framers. Together, Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, along with two other artists released an album, “The Swell Season,” in 2006 and later toured with Damien Rice. Despite coming from a different art, these musicians gave a compelling performance worthy of more experienced actors. In fact, since the people portraying the characters have not only actually experienced the process of writing and performing songs, but wrote many of the songs themselves, the movie captures the earnestness of their feeling. “Once” is set in Ireland. No one actually says the names of the main characters – or most of the other characters for that matter – but the story focuses on a short period in the lives of two working class citizens. The Guy, who works in a vacuum shop, spends much of his spare time playing songs with his guitar for money. The Girl is a Czech immigrant who sells flowers on the streets. One evening, the Girl passes the Guy on Dublin’s Grafton Street as he plays an original song and loves it. She starts up a conversation and they plan to see each other again as he offers to fix her vacuum. Their relationship sprouts as they get to know each other. Both are trying to move on from relationships that left them crippled: The Guy’s old girlfriend left him and moved to England, and the Girl’s husband left her to provide food and shelter for their child. The Guy and the Girl bond over their passion for music. The Girl’s father was a concert musician, and she learned to play classical piano as a child. Her present situation precludes her from owning a piano, however, and they have to go to the local music shop to play together. There they discover that they have a musical chemistry, and decide to spend the weekend recording their music.The Sound Engineer, initially skeptical of these poor workers’ musical ability, quickly becomes enamored of their songs. Though this might sound reminiscent of a high school football movie or even a chick flick, “Once” is more of a realistic film. The characters end up finding resolution, but not in any trite sort of cookie-cutter kind of way.Subtly strong and captivating, “Once” is truly one of the standout films of the year. It is fitting that at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival it won the World Cinema Audience Award for dramatic film; it is the kind of movie that sends away its audience feeling like they have seen something worthwhile.