Once is a fresh, charming movie depicting a musical romance between a Dublin busker (street musician, played by Glen Hansard) and an immigrant woman (Marketa Irglova) who cleans houses. She notices him playing his guitar and singing on the street, and they strike up a relationship via a very funny extended scene involving her broken vacuum cleaner.

We don’t get names for most of the characters. The lead is called The Guy, and the woman is called The Girl. But their names aren’t really important; we gradually and gracefully learn everything we need to know about these interesting and sympathetic people through their relationship. When The Guy is not out busking, he works in his father’s vacuum cleaner repair shop.

The relationship is a gentle, delightful, slow-moving one with unexpected twists. We learn that The Girl is a talented pianist. We learn about the two other people that The Guy and The Girl had been involved with. Will they return to their lost loves? How far apart are they from these old sweethearts? Or will they hook up themselves? The movie feels so real that we believe the way in which it all unfolds. Further, since The Guy and The Girl are so involved with music, it is entirely believable that music should be their primary way of communicating with each other. The delicacy of the romantic relationship in this movie reminded me of the wonderful Bill Murray/Scarlett Johansson dynamic in Lost in Translation.

Music is the third main character in this film. It functions as a backdrop, a communication medium between the two main characters, and works to charm and relax us as we enjoy the story. In the middle of the movie, we’re treated to an extended visit to a recording studio, wherein The Guy works to lay down his songs professionally (accompanied by a wonderfully eclectic group of backup musicians, plus The Girl), as a prelude to trying to break into the big time. (Hansard, who plays The Guy, is a singer/songwriter; his album Set List in 2001 was #1 on the Irish charts.)

This import from Ireland is unique in several ways: Though a romance, it doesn’t follow the typical Hollywood script for this genre; also, it is filmed in digital video (DV) instead of on traditional film, and uses a lot of handheld shots and natural lighting. The look of the film is therefore less polished and shiny. Director David Lynch said film is dead (or dying, anyway) in his recent book Catching the Big Fish. Lynch shot his recent movie, Inland Empire, on DV, loving its flexibility and ease of setup. Director John Carney reportedly made Once for 100,000 Euros ($136,000); it has earned over $3.8 million in the U.S. so far, and was the 19th-highest grossing movie this past week.

Once shows real people living their lives. The street scenes in Dublin feel unrehearsed, as if the filmmakers simply positioned their actors on a busy street and started filming. There don’t seem to be any extras, just a lot of people going about their ordinary business and happening to wander on and off-camera. Given its small budget, this is probably just how the movie was made.

We’ve gotten so used to the fully lit movies from Hollywood that it’s quite a contrast to see natural illumination, particularly in the interior and exterior night shots. The light is dim, so we don’t see all the details of faces, etc. that we’re used to seeing in American movies. A night walk by Irglova down a dark street is an evocative revelation of the glow of streetlights and the dark patches in between.

This film is rated R for strong language. Otherwise, it’s suitable for children (except that it may be too slow moving for many of them).

Once is an enchanting find: it has magic, heart, and engaging characters. It’s perfect for summer savoring, and is gaining its audience through word of mouth instead of through insistent publicity. If you’re tired of loud summer blockbusters, this quiet movie is just the ticket.

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