Yesterday being the birthday of James Joyce (1882-1941), the great Irish author who escaped his homeland to live the rest of his life on the continent, it seemed like an especially appropriate day to see the movie Brooklyn. Based on Colm Tóibín’s 2009 novel of the same name, it tells the touching take of an Irish girl, Eilis Lacey, who (like so many others) immigrates to the US, c. 1950, in search of a better and fuller life. That better and fuller life is exactly what she (like so many others) finally finds - in Brooklyn, NY, after some initial homesickness and a dalliance with dishonesty back home. She finds it in the promise of a career and, more decisively, in the love of an Italian boy named Tony, whom she marries, and with whom, we confidently hope, she will live happily ever after in a new home on Long Island.
The story is beautifully told – from her narrow, almost stifling life back home, through the sadness of parting from her beloved mother and sister (a touching scene like those which so many of our immigrant ancestors must have lived through), the uncomfortable ocean voyage, the struggle to settle in and adapt to a new life, the help she receives along the way (about which more in a minute), to finding love and the change that effects in her entire demeanor, and the temptation to give that up and settle for the old life again, and finally her choice for the free and fuller future America and Tony have to offer.
This superbly acted film captures the challenge of immigration and the inner transformation it both required and enabled. If the world of her Brooklyn boarding house and her arranged job seem small and narrow, they represent an infinite expanse compared to the small and narrow life she leaves behind (and to which she is briefly tempted to return). The film does this in a very true-to-life way - true at least to the New York working-class Irish and Italian life I can remember from the 1950s. It captures a way of life and an understanding of the world that is both sad (because it recognizes that life is inevitably about heartbreak) but also blessed (because life and love are gifts to be appreciated and received with gratitude).
Not surprisingly, the Catholic Church is a powerful presence in Eilis' little world and in theat of those around her. The movie actually begins with a Sunday morning Mass in her village - at which the priest appallingly mispronounces the Latin prayers (the Roman Canon, which in reality he would have been reciting silently). But priests are very positive and benevolent figures in this film. Eilis' sister, who wants her to go and have a fuller life, has arranged her passage with an Irish priest in Brooklyn, who sets her up in a local Irish boarding house in his parish and arranges a department-store job for her, counsels her when she is homesick, and registers her for classes in bookkeeping. Brooklyn's Fr. Flood is kind and big-hearted toward all his Irish parishioners - both the immigrant girls looking forward to a better future and the down-and-out older men whose hopes are now all past. The whole thing evokes the atmosphere of Going My Way (not just the 1944 movie but the 1962-1963 TV series which I used to watch and which I recently learned is available on DVD). It reminds me of when priests were routinely presented in a very positive light in movies and on TV. It reminds me of my own experience of priests when I was going up in a not all that different part of New York. It was a somewhat limited, even narrow world - at times even for some a stifling world. But it was also a community, whose institutional embodiments, its priests, for the most part cared well for their people and helped us navigate the challenges of change with open and compassionate hearts.