Belfast is actor/director’s Kenneth Branagh’s richly human memoir of growing up during the “Troubles” that tore apart Northern Ireland in the 1960s and 70s.
The story is told through the eyes of nine-year-old Buddy. Despite the war between Protestants and Catholics raging in their working-class neighbourhood, Buddy and his brother Will have happy childhoods because of the love and care of their Protestant parents and grandparents.
Buddy is a smart, soulful and creative nine-year-old lovingly nurtured by his wise, feisty mother who holds the family together and his hard-working, charming, if not always responsible father, who has a construction job in England to make enough money to support the family and pay off his gambling debts. With the Troubles of Northern Ireland squarely on their doorstep, Buddy manages to learn what love is from his “ma” and “pa”: love that enables them to celebrate Christmas despite the violence around them; love that compels “Ma” to drag Buddy by his sleeves through the crowd of angry rioters to return a box of soap he wrongfully looted; love that leads the family to make the heart-breaking decision to leave the only home they have known for a new start together in London.
Two especially poignant moments in the film depict what nine-year-old Buddy learns about love, family and community in the wake of the Troubles:
Buddy confides to his dad that he’s smitten with Catherine, a pretty girl in his school. He asks his dad if he thinks he and Catherine have a future. “Why the heck not?” Pa replies.
“You know she’s a Catholic,” Buddy says.
Pa kneels down to face Buddy: “That wee girl can be a practicing Hindu, or a Southern Baptist or a Vegetarian Anti-Christ. But if she’s kind and she’s fair, and you two respect each other, she an’ her people are welcome in our house any day of the week.”
Buddy begins to understand that love is about who you are and not the labels others assign to you.
One afternoon, Buddy’s wise grandfather “helps” Buddy with his math homework. Grampa suggests that Buddy make his answers a little more “ambiguous”: “Make that ‘7’ look so it might look like a ‘1,’” Gramps advises.
“But there’s only one right answer,” Buddy protests.
His grandfather replies, “If that were true, people wouldn’t be blowing each other up.”
Love, Buddy learns, is the path between so many conflicting “right answers.”
Belfast is a both funny and touching story of a boy discovering love and compassion in the midst of violence and conflict. As Buddy learns, patient, humble, generous love grows stronger the more it is tested; love endures and remains constant the more it is pulled; love continues to heal and forgive the more it is engaged. True “peace” requires us to put aside our own self-centred agendas and obsession with control in order to enable forgiveness and reconciliation, justice and community, to flourish. The Risen Jesus “commands” us who would be his disciples to bring the reality of his resurrection into this broken world of ours through our commitment to his Gospel vision of love manifested in forgiveness and generosity and our taking on the hard work of realizing his “peace.”