Despite the 80 degree temperature and cloudless sky, nearly 800 filmgoers were at the Waterville Opera House on Friday for a screening of “The Usual Suspects” and the presentation of the Midlife Achievement Award to Gabriel Byrne at the Maine International Film Festival.

It may seem strange to some to spend such a perfect summer day in a darkened theater, but Gabriel Byrne, himself, put it best in an interview before the screening.

“To me, there’s nothing quite like a group of strangers sitting in a dark room together in a public place, watching something that is a communal, emotional experience,” Byrne said. “That’s a different thing than sitting at home and watching it on TV. There’s something about the group consciousness, watching something, that’s irreplaceable.”

In his career, Byrne has taken on roles in an array of genres — all but comedy, in fact — from dirty cops, gangsters and pirates, to priests and even the devil himself. When it comes to selecting projects, Byrne said he’s drawn to themes that fascinate him and hopes to provoke thought among the audience. Those screened at MIFF, “Louder Than Bombs,” “Jindabyne,” “Miller’s Crossing” and “The Usual Suspects,” all enliven viewers in different ways, whether it’s a complex family drama that challenges what it means to be “masculine” in our society or a crime film with a classic twist.

The Irish-born actor, who feels at ease in Maine because of the geographic resemblance to his home, took the opportunity to reinforce the importance of film festivals in small communities, such as Waterville, to thrive and grow.

“[I]t’s not just the work of one person; it has to involve a community,” he said. “And if you look at places where movie festivals have taken off and you study them, what brought people to Telluride, Sundance, Toronto, Edinburgh? What is it there that drew people to those places? … The community has to become involved, and they have to see it as something that generates not just cultural interest, but it generates an awful lot of economic business, too.”

Film festivals also have a way of opening the doors for independent or foreign cinema within the community, and in a world where mainstream cinema is married with commercialism, it’s a breath of fresh air. Byrne is an advocate for critically examining these types of blockbuster movies and even goes so far as to encourage audiences to question the motivations behind the making of them.

“Culture, particularly film and television … people think it’s just a story. It’s just entertainment,” he said. “They don’t have to actually think too much about it … but that’s the danger of it. The danger is you absorb that stuff unconsciously and it becomes a point of view. It becomes the way you see the world.”

For example, Byrne noted that most often all conflict in mainstream cinema is solved through violence. And, just as there’s product placement, there’s also idea placement, and many studio-driven movies become, essentially, propaganda. It’s the reason Byrne believes students should be taught critical thinking from a young age, because it is so crucial later in life to ask the important questions.

“If you have an unthinking people, you have a people who can be controlled,” Byrne said. “It becomes easier to make them fearful, and steer them down the wrong path.”

For information on the Maine International Film Festival, visit For 140-character reviews of films screening at MIFF and other updates on the festival, follow Joel on Twitter: @JoelCrabtree.