This gripping 77-minute film holds us spellbound and captivates our imagination as much as almost any other work in the history of cinema.
Yes--it's because of technique; and yes--it's because of the artistry, because of the the craggy feel of the Aran Isles and the hard-scrabble looks of the locals pressed into service as actors by the brilliant documentarist, Robert Flaherty.
But there are deeper reasons, too. We have an inner need to glorify and dramatize the hardships of our ancestors and of those who have come before us. This mythmaking process--for myth it is--is an essential way in which we define ourselves and place ourselves in human history.
And the Aran Isles occupied a central place in the mythmaking that allowed the Irish Republic to define innate strengths and assert its identity, independence and nationhood.
As William Butler Yeats stated: "We desire to preserve into the modern life that ideal of a nation of men who will . . . remember always the four ancient virtues as a German philospher (Nietzche) has enumerated them: first, honesty among one's friends; second, courage among ones enemies; third, generosity among the weak; fourth, courtesy at all times whatsoever . . ."
Yeats and Lady Gregory, concerned to engender a foundational mythic drama and poetry for modern Ireland, sent John Millington Synge to the Aran Isles to live among peasants and capture the cadences of their speech and learn their outlook on the world. That advice became a turning point for Synge, both of his life and career. Out of it came the book of his experiences there The Aran Islands (Penguin Twentieth Century Classics) and his great 1904 one-act play Riders to the Sea.
Man of Aran is a continuation and new beginning in film of this creational myth. It enlists and captures all the energy and drama of myth-making and brings it forward in time so that audiences today can share it and experience the emotional power.
Man of Aran captures in a short space drama, tenderness, struggle against the elements, the relationship of men and women to nature, destiny and ultimately death--all the greatest themes of literature and art that transcend in space and time the making of the early Irish Republic.
Great art arrests the motion of life by artificial means holding it fixed in time so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it (or hears it if it is a poem or a song), it moves again since it is life.
Great art paints on the "big canvas" of human destiny. Truly effective propaganda and myth (like Shakespeare's history plays) are subtle, and transcending their original purpose, carry the audience along to a higher plane no matter what the era.
Transcendent art is not didactic, but rather, kinetic--precisely what Flaherty achieves in Man of Aran, created over 70 years ago.