By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated February 10, 1995 at 05:00 AM EST

John Sayles has got to be the most understated auteur in the business. In project after project, from Return of the Secaucus Seven to Eight Men Out to City of Hope (my favorite underachiever), what makes a Sayles project all Sayles is — aside from the earnest intelligence he brings to the anti-formulaic stories he writes, directs, and edits — his quietness. It’s a decibel level that makes fans (I’m one) lean forward to listen hard and makes the unconvinced itch to turn up the volume. Even when exploring a loud subject — lesbianism, race relations, labor battles, baseball scandal — this independent filmmaker’s voice is low; even when he’s acting in one of his own films, this unconventional actor’s face is slightly averted. To me, that’s a blessed plus; to others, it’s like playing an instrument with the mute on, the sound muffled and never bright enough.

In The Secret of Roan Inish (First Look, PG), Sayles works at his most self-effacing yet, in the wee-est of yarns, set on the underpopulated west coast of Ireland and featuring an unfamiliar Irish cast. Roan Inish (the name refers to the family’s ancestral island) is about Fiona (Jeni Courtney), a soulful little girl who is sent by her widower father to live in the country with her grandparents (Mick Lally and Eileen Colgan). There she hears a story about how, years ago when the family was leaving Roan Inish, her baby brother was swept out to sea in his cradle and vanished. Inevitably, she feels mystically drawn to explore the abandoned place for herself.

Seals figure prominently here — they more or less own the joint. They recognize Fiona as a soulmate, and if you’ve got a problem with that, then perhaps this isn’t the right wisp of a folktale for you. But if you slow your breathing to fit the activity (a Saylesian Irish fairytale, a bit o’ gab), there are lovely things to appreciate: the unmushy innocence the director coaxes from Courtney (who, with her grave eyes and rationed smile, could probably play a terrific Child from Hell on another soundstage); the un-Masterpiece Theatre-ish freshness supplied by the small cast (particularly John Lynch as a relative unfairly reckoned to be a tad barmy); the harsh geographic wildness captured by cinematographer Haskell Wexler (Matewan). Only when the last seal has looked squarely into the camera do you realize how notably unsentimental and casually magical Inish is, when it would have been so easy for another director to tart the picture up with blarney. A trustworthy blarney detector is Sayles’ great gift. Roan Inish is a tiny thing, as big as a thimble and as evanescent as Tinker Bell. You’ll clap if you believe. B+