You may not see a better film this year than Once and chances are you haven’t even heard of it.
Once, an Irish export, was one of the most talked about films at Sundance and now that it has bowed nationally, it is an instant critical darling. Fresh off the cinematic vine, Once is the sort of sacred piece of filmmaking that comes along only once in a very great while. Released in the midst of the brain dead summer lineup, Once is the anti-blockbuster that couldn’t have come at a better time.
He’s (Glen Hansard) a Dublin street performer with a broken heart who channels his soul through a gnarled guitar each night. She’s (Markéta Irglová) an immigrant single mom estranged from her husband and doing odd jobs to get by. They meet on his street corner where they instantly strike up a conversation about music...and vacuum cleaners. She’s a musician as well, and the next day she takes him to one of her favorite spots in the city, a piano store where the owner lets her play unmolested. There, as they play together for the first time, their music coalesces, mirroring the harmonizing of their hearts.
Over the coming week, they are inseparable. Their relationship is entirely platonic; they never so much as kiss. Their feelings are instead conveyed in intensely personal songs, which she convinces him to record. Watching them craft their music is pure, unadulterated magic, as if we were able to catch some reflection of the moment God spoke creation into existence. In the end, their relationship must end. Once sets up a resolution that, while bittersweet, allows their bond to forever remain in a state of euphoric memory.
Once is a musical, though not in the traditional sense. There is no score, only the music produced by the characters onscreen. Almost without exception, the songs — reminiscent of Radiohead, Travis and Coldplay — are allowed to play in full. The soundtrack is mesmerizing and heartfelt, an echo of one of the best music films ever made.
Neither Hansard or Irglová are actors. Both are professional musicians in Ireland where Hansard formed the extraordinarily popular rock band, “The Frames.” Their naturalistic acting style, reminiscent of all the film’s performances, is further enhanced by the film’s cinematography, shot with over-the-counter digital camcorders through which we see working-class Dublin as if in a rough, grainy home video.
Once is a film about the love of music, our need to express ourselves in it and its singular ability to enfold and transport our histories, hopes and agonies. The film is one of the most authentic and genuine things I have ever seen. It will renew your faith in all that is beautiful, transcendent, graceful and simple in movies. It will renew your faith in the art form itself.