In numbers that would make any congregation packed to the rafters, Poles have been flocking to cinemas across the country to watch Wojciech Smarzowski’s dark satire, but is it any good?
The Catholic Church has a unique place in Polish history, politics, and identity. It has become one of the defining characteristics of Poland and many outsiders such as myself cannot help but notice the prominence to which Catholicism has in both public and private lives of the country’s people.
Perhaps then, it was only a matter of time before the topic was given the cinema treatment as contemporary Poland emerges as a confident and prosperous modern state with a flourishing national film industry.
Smarzowski, an esteemed director of several renown movies including 2013’s Traffic Department (Drogówka) and from 2016 Volhynia (Wołyń) has stepped to the mark. Given his exisiting popularity and credentials along with the subject matter, this year’s Kler was always going to turn heads.
The film concerns a group of drunken and debauched Priests in the Krakow area who are variously involved in all kinds of sin and government corruption. The theme is blackmail, and there are a chain of events both in and around the clergy where each person must threaten, bribe, or in some way victimise the next in a dark and increasingly fraught spiral of moral decline. It all builds up to a shocking climax.
The cinematography is relatively conventional and scenes of modern Poland are shot clearly and realistically. The dialogue, even with English subtitles is very witty at times, and the cinema was frequently rocking with laughter. I found some of the behavior a bit exaggerated (think Father Ted with more vodka and gherkins) and it was in danger of over-egging the pudding but it just about holds itself together.
To my mind the best performances were by Robert Więckiewicz, a familar face in Polish film, plays a priest in the midst of an affair with a young woman played by Joanna Kulig (who you’ll recognise as the platinum-haired lead from Cold War).
So is this a good film? Yes. It’s an interesting and topical film made by the leading faces of Polish cinema and will only increase the growing stature of Polish film around the world. It holds no punches and has got people talking about some difficult issues. It is amusing and shocking in equal measure. It is certainly a zeitgeist moment and I recommend you see it.
Is it an instant classic? No. The characters are a bit thin and their deeper psychological motivations are largely unexplored. Some of the plot twists and turns become somewhat difficult to follow towards the end and I think perhaps half-an-hour could have been shaved off the running time.
The reactionary, right-wing press have been completely outraged by this film (wasn’t that the point)? And I have no doubt attendance records will be set for many years on the back of the controversy it has caused. In some quarters, this film is seen as a real threat to the institution of the Catholic Church in Poland. Ironically if they continue to hold that view, then more people will want to see it and what is essentially an above-average bit of satire will ascend to the celestial heights of box office heaven.