Understandably controversial in its native Poland, this ambitious drama skilfully shows its clerical cast are as much victims as villains
Source of understandable huffing among Polish conservatives, this stark and steely-eyed drama sets out its anti-clerical stall when three Catholic priests’ marathon drinking session is interrupted by news one of their parishioners requires the last rites, duly slurred through. A few degrees lighter – visually, tonally – and it might have reached us under the title Bad Padres.
The multitude of sins writer-director Wojciech Smarzowski enumerates spans confession-box dozing, illegal surveillance and liberal borrowing from the collection plate – and that’s before he perhaps inevitably broaches some ambiguous business with altar boys in the sacristy. Suffice to say, Smarzowski isn’t exactly preaching to the converted, rather mobilising that audience who suspect organised religion may be organised crime, a Cosa Nostra in cassocks.
Presumably one reason for the hubbub back home is that this line of attack is being pushed not in some scrappy indie, but as a handsome, multiplex-bound production boasting local stars: the most hireable priest – chief weakness: booze – is embodied by the excellent Robert Wieckiewicz, who played national hero Lech Walesa in Andrzej Wajda’s 2013 biopic. (His pregnant wife is played by Joanna Kulig, removed of her Cold War glamour.)
After that rip-roaring opening, Smarzowski begins to chart the priests’ daily transgressions with a seriousness that subtly, skilfully shifts our perceptions of his apparently damnable protagonists. After half an hour, they start to look less like blundering caricatures than individuals at the mercy of a system keener to cover up than prevent abuses that are in many ways cyclical.
At times, it feels as if the writer-director has taken on more than one film can satisfactorily chew. The deviation and interweaving of the three priestly strands proves quietly inspired – the network of corruption sustaining 1997’s LA Confidential may have been an unlikely but valuable influence – but the film still clocks in at an ungainly two-plus hours, despite a ruthless editing strategy that pares scenes to the bone.
Yet if Smarzowski can’t quite achieve the straight-ahead rhetorical force of Pablo Larrain’s The Club, he gets close – particularly in the closing stretch – while the haunting central performances provide their own, altogether grim survey of the Polish church: here are sad, lonely, damaged men, clinging to their dog collars even as circumstances transform them into vices around their necks. Say a prayer for the Vatican PRs having to spin this one.