Hold the Wry

America has been both a real place and a myth almost from the moment of its discovery. The dream of economic opportunity, along with political and religious freedom, has drawn people here from around the globe for more than three centuries.

A whole body of literature and film has grown up around a subcate-gory of the immigration experience: the hardships of the “old country” as seen in the light of the “new world” (as in the masterpiece of the genre, 1963's America, America by Elia Kazan).

Frank McCourt's Pulitzer Prizewinning best seller Angela's Ashes is typical of the Irish variation on this myth, with one important exception. Poverty, alcoholism and English exploitation are the genre's usual themes. But McCourt's autobiographical memoir adds to the mix another villain — the Catholic Church. This he portrays as repressive, uncharitable and elitist.

“The priests lacked compassion,” McCourt told a reporter in an interview with The Book Report that spelled out the perspective that framed much of his book. “They preached poverty, but they never embraced it. The Church had all the answers.”

In the recently released film based on the book, director Alan Parker (The Commitments) and coscreenwriter Laura Jones soften somewhat McCourt's anti-Church bias. At least one of the dozen priests we encounter is shown to be kind. But the audience gets the impression that one of the main reasons for Irish immigration to America was the oppressiveness of the Church.

The movie is structured episodically. It begins not in Ireland, but in Brooklyn in 1935. Frank's parents, Malachi (Robert Carlyle) and Angela (Emily Watson), are poor, even by the standards of the Depression. The first scene shows us their joy at the birth of Margaret Mary, their fifth child and first daughter. Almost immediately thereafter, the baby dies.

Hard times continue to grind the McCourts down. They give up and return to the old country, becoming, according to Frank's voice-over (Andrew Bennett), “the only Irish family in history saying goodbye to the Statue of Liberty.”

Comfort to the Suffering

Some might look to religion as a comfort and guide in the midst of such suffering. But the movie sees it as divisive. The family settles in Limerick, a place characterized by widespread piety and nonstop rain. Angela's Catholic relatives, instead of offering support, enjoy insulting Malachi because he's a Protestant from the North. Whenever the young Frank (Joe Breen) gets filthy like most boys, they taunt: “It's the Northern Ireland in you that attracts the dirt.” And his sloppy manners are described as “eating like a Presbyterian.”

Malachi is addicted to alcohol, “a slave to drink” who's gone “beyond the beyond.” He's unable to hold a job and, when he does work, he spends his paycheck on booze rather than food or rent. His wife and children must live with the consequences, dwelling in a run-down, unheated flat with leaky pipes, infested bedding and an outhouse next door. The filmmakers sometimes rub our noses in this squalor more than is necessary.

However, the movie, like the book, refuses to caricature Malachi, presenting his good qualities along with his flaws. He's a natural storyteller who dreams of the world outside their slum — a gift he passes on to young Frank.

The movie is not overtly anti-Catholic. It never attacks the Church's doctrines or teachings, only its organization and priests. Like all the characters, Malachi's only frame of reference is Catholicism. He brings home a portrait of Pope Leo XIII, whom he admires as a friend of the workingman. But he rarely goes to Mass.

Angela is the long-suffering Irish mother often depicted in movies, books and songs. A believer of sorts, she holds the family together despite extreme poverty and an unreliable husband.

Church charities show her little compassion. When she queues for alms at the St. Vincent de Paul Society, its lay administrators enjoy humiliating her. Her groveling for leftovers outside the parish rectory is also depicted as unnecessarily degrading for her and her children.

Meanwhile the adolescent Frank (Ciaran Owens) finds the Church holds his low status against him. He's coldly rejected by the Christian Brothers when he tries to attend one of their schools and by his parish where he wants to be an altar boy.

Frank's Catholic education is presented with some of the humor for which the book has been widely celebrated. The boy feels compelled to go to confession every time he commits the smallest sin. And he's told that one of the benefits of taking Communion is that “now you can die a martyr if you're murdered by the Protestants.”

At the Jesuit school where he finishes his studies, he writes an essay on Jesus and the weather, arguing that Jesus would never have lived in Limerick because it always rains. Despite their initial shock at Frank's nonconformist attitudes, his teachers recognize his gift with words and encourage him to “stock your mind. It's your house of treasures. No one can interfere.”

Frank takes their advice to heart and becomes determined not to be crushed by his environment, knocking over obstacles with ambition and high spirits. In spite of warnings by his teachers about “the devil's henchman in Hollywood,” he's inspired by the vision of America presented in James Cagney movies. He vows to get back there one way or another.

Lacking the droll verbal descriptions that held the book together, the movie version of Angela's Ashes is rambling and unfocused. Its sledgehammer depiction of desperate poverty and Church cruelty — based on this account, nearly everyone who works for the Church in Ireland has a mean streak — is numbing rather than enlightening.

Arts & Culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.