In art, as in life, the only way to approach the universal is through the particular. This is always the way in good poetry and in good literature generally. I will get to the particulars I have in mind in a minute but this is also the insight George Orwell communicated in his great commandment that all our thinking should be rooted in the concrete, should begin with the concrete. Then when we get to abstractions they have some actual meaning, some resonance with our lives and experience, even if — especially if — these are imagined lives and imagined experiences.
All of which is a long-winded way of telling you that you could do a lot worse than see two recent movies that celebrate particular ethnic experiences. They are Brooklyn, which is naturally all about the Irish, and My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2, whose ethnic association is obvious.
Brooklyn is a lovely book by Colm Toibin, but this is a rare case where I thoroughly enjoyed the book yet found the film perhaps lovelier still. The Irish have been so often celebrated on screen that there hardly seems to be a reason to do it again, but the culture and the stories are so rich as to be inexhaustible.
The version of 1951 Ireland presented at the start of the film is made deliberately unattractive and provincial. But when the heroine, Eilis, migrates to America, specifically to Brooklyn, her overwhelming feeling is homesickness. Slowly, slowly, slowly she falls in love with Tony, an Italian American: both of them Catholic, both part of that universal tradition, but so different all the same, and with different families and histories, and ties to different parts of the earth.
In a twinkling Eilis is secretly married to Tony, and then fate has her back in Ireland temporarily. All polished up as she is by her American experience, she is newly attractive to everyone in Ireland and two futures beckon: Ireland or Brooklyn. The sense of aching nostalgia, of the loneliness of choice, is perfect in this film. Although the movie doesn’t at first seem to do justice to Ireland, in part because it can’t enter imaginatively into its religious tradition, Eilis, played by Saoirse Ronan, is such a beguiling screen presence, with such an intelligent, restrained, subtle script, that somehow she serves to embody everything that you always love about Ireland.
A film in an altogether different register is My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2. Yet, like Brooklyn, this is a film of great charm and actually of great, effective, clever cinematic restraint. Like Brooklyn, a wholly successful work of art, it owes its charm to its leading lady, the often underrated Nia Vardalos, who only ever needs a passable script to bring out the engaging warmth of her character.
There is the odd touch of slapstick in this film and some critics complain that it looks like television soap opera. But in truth, like its predecessor, it gets past the critics to the audience because it entertainingly celebrates things which are true and which are good. And it’s immensely droll the way it references, but doesn’t repeat, many of the jokes of the first film.
The Greeks, even Greek immigrants in the US, have never had anything like the sustained good press of the Irish, who made a whole American popular culture out of themselves. And you could say that this film oversimplifies the Greeks, reducing them to food and family, much like the Indians in Monsoon Wedding, an equally successful consideration of a single ethnic tradition.
But much of life, much of most lives anyway, is food and family. These are universals. The best way to contemplate them is through specifics, a specific story in a specific context.
Brooklyn, and My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2, are popular entertainments, not high culture. But they are very, very good popular entertainments. They seek not the trivia of intensity but the truth of beauty.
You’d be happy to attend that Greek wedding, or stroll with Eilis on the coast near Enniscorthy, or join Tony’s family for pasta in Brooklyn. There’s something of life in these films, something of real life, and the universal truths of family, which remain familiar to every human being, and yet a mystery.