Oscar shorts: ‘Pentecost’ merges worlds of sports and church
For Irish theater and film actor Peter McDonald, the idea for his directorial debut, the 11-minute film “Pentecost,” began with an image: a group of altar boys in the back room of a church with the sacristan giving them a pep talk before Mass.
“I thought, ‘Oh God, there’s a great film in there,’ ” said McDonald, 39. “It was incredibly visual and [the church] struck me as quite a high-stakes world.”
The comedy that arose when merging that world with the pressure of a high-stakes sports game was funny and endearing enough to earn “Pentecost” attention from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which included the film on its shortlist for the live action short category.
The film tells the story of Damien Lynch, a young altar boy who is offered the chance to serve at an important Mass in his small town, his chance to redeem himself after his last turn as altar boy two weeks before, when he knocked Father O’Toole off the altar. If he does the job right this time around, the ban his father has placed on his passion -– soccer -– will be lifted, just in time for him to see his favorite team in its first European cup final.
McDonald takes the language and tone of a sports movie and places it in the realm of the Catholic Church in the 1970s -– when the director himself was an altar boy. Priests in the film refer to altar boys with such phrases as “We lost him on a technicality.” Sports-arena-like cheers overlay the sounds of the small church. And that image of a pep talk that was McDonald’s starting point becomes a central part of the film.
“[That scene] is lit to almost feel like a sports movie, the pep talk before they go out and play the big game… And I lit it so the boys look angelic in their white and red, and the sacristan is walking around kind of like a Darth Vader,” McDonald said.
When the film screened in Ireland, the director could see that it resonated with its audience.
“I think people in Ireland particularly connected with the material. Hopefully, it’s universal but … they understand the role the Mass plays within a small town like that -– it’s very much a public event,” McDonald said.
The film was shot in the Irish counties of Dublin and Wicklow. Also sticking close to home is some of the short’s music: The closing credits feature the song “My Perfect Cousin” by the Undertones, a punk band from Northern Ireland.
McDonald also had his composer record a version of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony –- the portion best known as “Ode to Joy” -- dominated by acoustic guitar, which is used repeatedly through the film. (Hear it in the film's trailer, below.)
“I wanted some classical music in there. And there’s also a great energy to that particular melody. It kind of has a marching forward feel,” McDonald said. “[This instrumentation] keeps the tone of the film bright and marching forward yet within the world of this clerical, ecclesiastical backdrop.”
The actor-filmmaker, who is now based in London, will next appear in front of the camera in “Titanic,” the upcoming miniseries written by “Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes.
“Pentecost,” which was funded by the Irish Film Board’s Signatures program, is set for distribution in the United Kingdom through Network Ireland, with a U.S. release a possibility. Shorts International will release the film theatrically with this year’s other Oscar-nominated shorts if it makes the cut.
-- Emily Rome
Photo: Short film "Pentecost" features a scene in the sacristy of a Catholic church that evokes pep talk scenes from sports movies. Credit: Helen Warner.