The classic two-hander isn’t a format I personally gravitate much towards (on our team, Ivan is your man—he’s actually made a few of them). I like big concepts and inventive visual production, qualities that tend be in short supply in this usually economical format. Still, I couldn’t help but fall for Bless Me Father, the debut directing effort from Paul Horan when it came across our (proverbial) desk. It is a film about a secret—a juicy one at that—and the resentments and regrets that stem from long-held grudges buried under the surface of polite society. Two-handers commonly aim for emotional authenticity, and while Bless Me Father does not lack for this quality, it also piles on tons of drama, in a slow, tense unfurling that is closer in spirit to a thriller.
A parish priest is faced with a moral dilemma when a parishioner comes to deliver a confession which directly effects the priest’s own life. The priest is torn between his duty to offer forgiveness, and his personal reaction to this revelation.
Drawing upon his childhood in a small town in rural Ireland, the LA-based Horan molded the backdrop of the film from his memories of that insular setting—the local politics, the sense that everyone is gossiping away about everything, and the animosities that linger for a long time. Peppering classic Irish dark humor into the mix, he tackles that most revered of institutions, the church, but does so in an uncommonly nuanced way. The film’s sympathy resides equally in both sides of the conflict, painting in a shade of gray that is, itself however, a pointed contrast to self-righteous black and white worldview of institutional theology.
With centuries of symbolic weight behind it, you could do a lot worse than to set your two-hander in a confessional, but the confined space can be a bit limiting visually. Horan does not come from a visual background, he is a writer first and foremost, who currently works as such for the renowned commercial production house Smuggler. So it was a pleasant surprise how much impact he and his collaborators, cinematographer, Eimear Ennis Graham, and production designer, Mike Fitzpatrick, were able to wring out of the confined box. Building their own custom unit with removable panels, they would run the entire script through from a single vantage and then shift setups to do it all over again. The result is much more involving then 15 minutes of shot reverse shot (and more taxing on the actors!), but good luck noticing, as you find yourself spellbound and hanging on every line of dialogue.
Indeed, despite the aforementioned production tricks and strong performances from veteran actors Francis Magee (Yoren from Game of Thrones) and Phelim Drew (My Left Foot), the script is truly the star of the show here. Horan eases into things slowly, but once the drama picks up steam it is captivating. His control of the conversation’s pacing, and the measured way he parcels out reveals is masterful. The content of the the dialogue itself is strong and strikes the right tonal balance—while not naturalistic, it is effective and unshowy—theatrical to an extent, but not overwrought. Lesser hands would be seduced by language to throw audiences out of the rhythm of the film or remove them from the stakes of the plot by attempting faux-profundity, yet the core authenticity of the characters never breaks here.
Partly why Horan is able to avoid clunkers in the dialogue is the subtlety of the themes he is invoking. The psychological depth and conflicted nature of both protagonist’s does not lend itself well to moral grandstanding, and in conversations with us it is clear how thoughtfully Horan has conceptualized the story—invoking the fraught nature of the church’s reputation in the wake of scandal, and how he “wanted to explore the idea of how, over time, people grow to subvert their institutions for their own ends. Here it’s seen through how the two locals use confession, one as a place to gossip, and the other as a place to deliver a confession that hurts rather than heals.”
Now that Horan has taken the leap to directing he is moving quickly, with another short film, Cuddles, out on the festival circuit currently. He is also keeping an eye out towards features with 3 feature scripts in various stages of re-writes, and a female-focused sci-fi series on top of that! We’ll be keeping an eye out for this talented wordsmith, and hopefully will have more to share with you in the future.