Mary in the Road: The Untaken Paths of ‘The Banshees of Inisherin’

FILM: A look at the Blessed Mother’s role in the Oscar contender

‘The Banshees of Inisherin’
‘The Banshees of Inisherin’ (photo: Searchlight)

A statue of the Virgin Mary stands at a fork in a gravelly road, a figure in soft blue rising above the green and windswept hills of a countryside that descends down to a rocky coastline. The place is a fictional one — an island off the coast of Ireland that serves as the setting for the 2022 film The Banshees of Inisherin — while the story set there is often comical and, in ways, absurd.

That said, in part specifically because of these latter two characteristics, the movie is excellent, full of truths and dynamics that all viewers will be able to recognize in their societies, in history and in themselves. Among these truths are the ones presented by that statue of the Virgin: truths that are ignored or purposely avoided by characters who should perhaps know, and do, better. 

The quality of The Banshees of Inisherin’s story is matched by superb acting and an evocative and exquisitely filmed setting, making the multiple major award nominations received by the movie (including one for the Academy Award for “Best Picture”) entirely unsurprising.

The plot centers on two friends living on the titular island in the Ireland of the early 1920s. As the film opens, one of these friends, Colm, informs the other, Pádraic, that he no longer wishes to speak to him. While there is little offered to explain this decision, Colm has committed himself to it and soon adds the threat that he will successively cut off his own fingers each time Pádraic engages him.

As the friends (or former friends) and other related characters navigate the fallout of Colm’s decision, the gun and cannon fire of the unfolding Irish Civil War across the channel on the mainland are heard and occasionally discussed. The parallels between the two conflicts — one national in scale, one intensely personal — cannot be missed. (At one point Pádraic, upon hearing the gunfire, looks over toward the larger island and says to the wind, “Good luck to ye, whatever it is you’re fighting about.”) But they also do not represent the entirety of what the movie has to say about human divergences and the decisions made in response to them.

The odd breakdown of the two main characters’ friendship has consequences for everyone else passing through their lives, most notably including Pádraic’s decent and reasonable sister and a local young innocent struggling to make sense of a challenging and often sad life.

As the characters come and go across Inisherin, to and from the pub and the church, they occasionally pass by a statue of the Blessed Mother at a fork in the road. Each time the statue is shown, however, the face can never be clearly seen (the figure is shown from the back, in profile, or at a distance from which the face is blurred). This holds true in two critical scenes that take place directly in front of the Blessed Mother — one in which Colm does wrong by Pádraic, and then again one in which Pádraic does wrong by Colm. 

Her face not seen and her example of loving mercy not embraced, Mary stands above a story of spiraling sadness and absurdity, one which includes the death of innocence and the departure of reason and decency from the scene. Finally, though, in the closing minutes of the film, with serious damage done, the Blessed Mother’s visage is shown clearly for the first time. The viewer is left to wonder what her expression, at last revealed, signifies: Is it pity, understanding, hope?

Perhaps the fact that the promise of the statue — Mary standing atop the globe, crushing Satan underfoot (as in a Miraculous Medal) — is not sufficient to affect the behavior of the characters leaves the viewer with no option but to believe that only the most obvious feeling is being conveyed: sorrow. And yet, although the characters have not yet taken up the offer, the Blessed Mother’s arms remain outstretched, welcoming all that will turn to her.

In the next scene, the film’s last, Colm comments that the guns on the mainland had gone silent for a couple of days; as the film fades to black, though, there can be no doubt that they will be heard again, in actual contemporary life as much as on the fictional Inisherin of the 1920s.

Kevin Duffy has written for a variety of Catholic publications, including multiple reviews for Religion and Liberty Online (the Acton Institute) and the “Europe in These Times” series for Dappled Things.