This is one hell of a savage movie, a full frontal attack on the Catholic Church, specifically an attack on the Catholic Church of Poland. In Poland the Catholic Church and the ruling political party have condemned it – the director was forced to shoot it in Czechoslovakia – but thy can’t stop the faithful and the non-believer lining up to see it. If anything the defaming of its director and the dismissal of this searing exposé of the Church’s moral collapse is boosting ticket sales wherever it’s shown.
Clergy (Polish – ‘Kler’) has subtitles. Since working with three industrious and skilled Polish stonemasons I recognise a few Polish words and phrases, the two most often spoken in anger by the priests is their equivalent of ‘fuck’ and ‘motherfucker’. This is a powerful, unyielding, expose of ecumenical corruption that wears a dog collar.
For some reason the film is classed as a comedy drama. The Life of Brian it ain’t. There’s lots that make you laugh out loud, usually because you’re so taken aback at the Church’s audacity in the myriad of ways it solves its ghastly self-inflicted problems, or when you see flashes of Father Ted, but not the pantomime. This is deadly serious comedy.
Clergy is showing in your local multiplex, an indication of how confident are the distributors of catching a large contingent of Polish people in Scotland. The showing I attended was full.
Clergy has the same visceral punch as Ireland’s Black 47, (reviewed last week) but you will have to seek out that film in an art house cinema. Unlike Black 47 which takes us through a series of revenge killings, only a dog gets killed in Clergy, however, lots of lives are wrecked. There’s not a single boring minute in over two hours.
Just offering a review will be controversial. I expect to receive a few aggressive protests from the faithful. During the 2018 Gdynia Polish Film Festival, ‘Kler’ was met with the longest applause of the audience which should have given it the Zloty Klakier award, presented each year by public Radio Gdansk. However, the Managing Director of Radio Gdansk decided not to award any movie this year with that award, citing ‘an impossibility of objective assessment of survey accuracy’ as a pretext.
Where to begin? An erring priest’s housekeeper, his mistress, tells him she is pregnant. He can’t understand how it happened. “How … did you not take precautions?” he asks. “My faith won’t allow it”, she answers, a stab to the heart. She is telling us that to stay a Catholic and live a natural happy life actually entails ignoring the Pope’s edicts.
The film begins like a very bad bar room joke: There was an adulterer priest, a money laundering priest, and a paedophile priest, and they all got drunk one day. Three priests are celebrating their good fortune by getting roaring drunk. It might be the last time any of them experience anything close to happiness. From then on their lives take a dark turn. No matter what they do to correct things, things get worse. They’re damaged men.
Co-writer-director Wojciech Smarzowski unravels the priest’s transgressions one day at a time. He is subtle, he is clever, he is entertaining in the way he shows us mundane everyday domestic chores but snap-edits them, a montage of a priest’s thoughts and actions. We observe damned men. You wonder which of them will hang themselves first.
The deviation and interweaving of the three priestly strands is masterly. Occasionally you cannot suspend your disbelief at the plot coincidences, but you shake cynicism out of your head because you know you’re watching dramatised truth. These three priests exemplify the contemporary diseases of Catholicism.
Performances are all-round excellent. The director also gives us to-camera confessions from real victims of the Church’s legacy of exploitation. In my case, and a good few others I’d warrant, he’s preaching to the converted. As a kid I had a priest sniffing around me. He gave up when I grew to six feet in height practically overnight.
Smarzowski gathers together all the threads to illustrate syndicated crime at work, called the Mafia anywhere else, the way it makes money, the way it holds power over elected officials, the way it puts church before people, and how it covers its tracks.
Performances are uniformly excellent. Priest Andrzej (Arkadiusz Jakabik) is a haunted soul. He has a dark past as a youth that he keeps well sublimated until it erupts behind closed doors with alter boys. He knows it will be his undoing one day but something drives him to sin and to sin again. He is trapped, a lonely man in a lonely church.
Andrerezej’s old friend, Priest Tadeuz (Robert Woieckiewicz) looks after a rural church. He’s an adulterer and an alcoholic. He is that kind, a maintenance drinker, one shot of vodka has to be followed by another, a full glass and a bottle always in easy reach. Half his day has him boozed to the eyeballs, staring unfocussed into the middle distance, or half-asleep in the Confessional box. His mistress, Hanka, (Joanna Kulig) is that saint of a female we’ve all met, the one convinced she can make him a better man, prepared to take his cruelties and callousness as a trade for a few momentary glimpses of tenderness.
Priest Leszek (Jacek Brakiak) is none of those things. He leads an aesthete’s life, always tie and suited impeccably, hair brushed to one side, personality buttoned up, the keeper of Church secrets. He enjoys a luxury riverside modern apartment with all the digital trimmings and wide screen paraphernalia back handers can buy. He has ambitions to reach a post in the Vatican, and there is nothing that will stop him.
To those characters and their story strands Smarzowski adds a welter of genuine Polish faces, where the smallest walk-on role is given a background story. None look like actors for they are so naturalistic in behaviour and delivery of lines.
Among the main characters, Archbishop Mordowicz (Janus Gajos) gives us the Godfather role. Whenever faced by a major problem that might involve the law he thinks for a few minutes and then chucks a wad of cash at it. He has a stockpile in the backroom, money taken from the poor, from wealthy donations, endowments, and Vatican allowances.
In one riveting scene, faced by a mentally scarred man claiming redress for molestation at the hands of a priest when young, Mordowicz asks if he really wishes to ‘hurt the Church he loves’. The man is dumfounded, stunned by the show of ruthlessness.
It’s difficult to describe more of the story outlines without spoiling the punch that this film carries other than to add the ending is symbolic, partly over-the-top, partly justified. As you watch the priests’ frantic antics to shake off retribution coming their way you’re reminded of similar episodes in Scotland and Ireland, how we are not free of the crimes.
Recently Pope Francis expelled the Reverend Cristian Precht Bañados of Chile, a seedy man steeped in child sex scandals, until that moment, protected by the Church. He had denied the allegations saying he had ‘never forced anyone, adult or child’. It seemed to me the Pope had no choice in the face of public disquiet. Every bishop in Chile had offered to resign, a smart ploy they knew the Pope couldn’t afford to approve. Pope Francis faces an insoluble problem, how to spot and remove sexually abusive priests early, and whether the priesthood should be allowed to marry. The Pope’s action is almost meaningless. Earlier, he had accused the victims of slander.
We don’t know, for example, that the Catholic Church’s money laundering has been halted, so secret is the Vatican City. And we like to laugh at Monty Python’s oft quoted Spanish Inquisition sketch. The Catholic Church would have us believe that the Inquisition happened hundreds of years ago. They have nothing to do with that past. Few realise that the Inquisition still exists, though it has altered its name. It exists to keep an eye on rebellious priests and it avoids the limelight.
Clergy shows us the Catholic Church in all its criminality. Nothing is spared in this study of hypocrisy. It tells us priests are flawed humans pretending to be saints.
This film is a first rate piece of political drama. When next admiring the wealth and splendour that is a Catholic church spare a thought for the faithful entering on bended knee and praying. They are hoodwinked in so many ways.
- Star Rating: Five stars
- Cast: Arkadiusz Jakubik, Robert Wieckiewicz, Jacek Braciak |
- Director: Wojciech Smarzowski
- Writer: Wojciech Rzehak, Wojciech Smarzowski
- Cinematographer: Tomasz Madejski
- Composer: Mikolaj Trzaska
- Rating: 18
- Duration: 2 hours 13 minutes
- RATING CRITERIA
- 5 plus: potential classic, innovative. 5: outstanding. 4: excellent. 3.5: excellent but flawed. 3: very good if formulaic. 2: straight to DVD. 1: crap; why did they bother?