Recently, C-SPAN broadcast a program called "The Great American Think-Off," during which contestants debated the topic "Which is More Dangerous, Science or Religion?" Those who chose religion as the greater culprit could have saved themselves a lot of verbiage and simply screened writer-director Paul Quinn's "This is My Father," a dour fable of sexual repression and class rigidity as sanctioned by the sort of punishing Catholicism one would expect to find in rural Ireland of the 1930s, which is where most of the film takes place.
But first we have a rather pallid framing device set in present-day Chicago, where we meet Kieran Johnson (James Caan), a depressed high school teacher overwhelmed by his indifferent students and living with his mute and dying mother, his well-meaning sister and her surly, delinquent son. Caan's face has settled into a cast of pervasive anxiety during the past decade -- he looks like a man waiting for the next psychic laceration -- so it's almost believable when he drops everything at the slightest provocation and decides to go to Ireland, taciturn nephew in tow, to investigate his mystery-shrouded parentage.
Soon we are safely ensconced in flashbacks, where the scenery is pretty, the characters are colorful and the hero is doomed. The latter is Johnson's father, Kieran O'Day, played by Aidan Quinn (brother of director Paul), decked out in a bad haircut and an ill-fitting suit, twin symbols of poverty and earnestness. O'Day falls in love with his landlord's young daughter Fiona (Moya Farrelly) and vice versa, and the differences in their ages and social status soon cause a scandal.
From here on, the movie trudges down its well-worn path to tragedy, pausing for a gratuitous cameo by John Cusack as an aviator and Life magazine photographer (!?) and an effective one by Stephan Rea as a fire-and-brimstone priest weighed down by the heavy sadness of his morbid obsessions.
Although much sympathy is generated for poor O'Day, fewer melodramatic plot flourishes would have helped. And the framing device seems superfluous, just a way to leaven the unhappy ending with a little sentimentality. This isn't a terribly bad film, just a very ungainly one.