Young Joe (Colm Seoighe) by the sea in Song of Granite (Oscilloscope Laboratories)

Song of Granite uses an impressionistic, avant-garde style to capture the essence of Joe Heaney (1919–1984), who is considered Ireland’s greatest 20th century singer in the sean nós, “old style.” Director Pat Collins travels back to three periods of Heaney’s restless life: as a child first absorbing ancient Irish oral history and culture; as a wanderer through Irish émigré communities of the British Isles; and exile in the United States, where the 1960’s folk revival celebrated his authenticity.

Young Joe Heaney (Colm Seoighe) scrambles and dances around the picturesque houses and rocky shores of Connemara, accompanying his fisherman father on tunes out on his boat. The boy is as mesmerized as the film audience will be by a gathering of elders, in which myths and stories are retold and songs shared. (Fans of the series Outlander will recognize the voice of Gaelic vocalist Griogair Labhruidh.)

Voice-over interviews recall Heaney’s youthful marriage and his children—and their abandonment—while archival images from Philip Donnellan’s The Irishmen: An Impression of Exile, from the BBC in 1965, show the tough, laboring jobs that drew the Irish away from rural villages. Joe is played in his 30s and 40s by singer Mícheál Ó Chonfhaola, who in 2013 won the Corn Uí Riada, Ireland’s biggest sean nós singing competition. In a Glasgow pub song exchange, his full rendition of Heaney’s signature ballad is so powerful that he has to grip a man’s hand to stay earthbound.

Heaney moved on, like so many of his countrymen, to America. There are archival images of Heaney in New York from an Irish television documentary and footage of his performance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1966, where he was hailed by the Clancy Brothers. But as portrayed in his 60s by Macdara Ó Fátharta, Heaney is a cynic, mocking the popularization of Irish culture, including digs at the Clancys’ interpretations. Working menial jobs such as a hotel doorman, he is cutoff from the environment that nurtured him, and he recalls poems of longing for home, though he died in Seattle in 1984.

Cinematographer Richard Kendrick’s gorgeous black-and-white imagery combines the avant-garde tone and slow pacing of Ken Jacobs’s urban perambulations and Nathaniel Dorsky’s and Andrew Noren’s studies of seasons and shadows, so the audience can imagine what is on Heaney’s mind. Ironically, the film’s creative team’s previous work, Silence (2012), focused on a sound recorder in exile who returns to Ireland seeking a pure, natural aural environment devoid of man, so lacking of the culture that touched Heaney so deeply. In the recent informative documentary Extraordinary Ordinary People: Five American Masters of Traditional Arts, folklorist Alan Govenar elicited how pressured artists feel carrying on a tradition that embodies the spirit of their ancestors. The interviews in that film fill in the explicit motivations that Collins eschews for a sense of emotional truth.

Song of Granite is an unusual selection as Ireland’s official submission for Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award. Its beauty and heartbreaking sense of a lost connection to the past are eloquently expressive—much more so than the corny sentimentalism that Heaney scorned.

Directed by Pat Collins
Written by Collins, Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhríde, and Sharon Whooley
Released by Oscilloscope Laboratories
English and Gaelic with English subtitles
Ireland/Canada. 104 min. Not rated
With Colm Seoighe, Mícheál Ó Chonfhaola, Macdara Ó Fátharta, and Jaren Cerf