Below is a guest blog post by Filip Mazurczak about the 2018 Polish film Kler (Clergy).
Clergy: An Imperfect, but Needed Film
Wojciech Smarzowski’s film Kler (“Clergy”), which deals with scandal in the Catholic Church, has done remarkably well at the box office. It has been seen by 4.5 million Poles, making it the third film with the largest number of tickets sold in Poland after 1989, next to Jerzy Hoffman’s adaptation of Henryk Sienkiewicz’s With Fire and Sword and Andrzej Wajda’s take on Adam Mickiewicz’s Pan Tadeusz. Clergy, however, is nowhere near the success of Polish blockbusters from the communist era, such as Aleksander Ford’s adaptation of Sienkiewicz’s The Teutonic Knights, which sold 35 million tickets at a time when Poland’s population numbered a mere 32 million.
The opening scene of Clergy is one of the best crafted I have seen in recent Polish cinema. It shows three priests who have clearly been friends for a long time partying at a presbytery. They drink copious amounts of vodka, one shoots an apple of the other’s head with a slingshot (which, we learn later, he had borrowed from one of the students at the school where he teaches), gossip about Church affairs, and rock out to a song by the Polish rock band Kult, playing air guitar and air drums using wooden ladles, lamps, and other household objects.
To me, this scene brilliantly shows male friendship, something we in my opinion do not see enough on the silver screen, and when we do, it is in the form of mentor-like relationships, as in Good Will Hunting or Scent of a Woman.
There are other scenes, though, that are awkward, unoriginal, and poorly scripted. Thus at an artistic level, Clergy is a very uneven film. There are many things that work, and many that do not. For starters, the opening scene showing the priests acting in a way that is more profane than sacred and enjoying their camaraderie in a profession of which loneliness is a major part makes one think that their stories will intersect in the film. Clergy has many characters played by many of Poland’s finest actors and is an ensemble film, making one think of something by Robert Altman or Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights. However, the three priests’ roads hardly intersect again (except towards the end of the film when the most positive of these three priests suspects that the most negative one may be a sex abuser). This makes the narrative feel disjointed; if their respective narratives met once more at the end, Clergy would be a much better film.
Many Polish critics have praised Janusz Gajos’ role as Archbishop Mordowicz (who is widely believed to be modeled on Archbishop Sławoj Leszek Głódź of Gdansk, known for his opulent lifestyle, love of drink, and close relationships with politicians, not only conservative, but also leftist post-communist ones). Although this will be lost on non-Polish language speakers, his name is in itself satirical: morda is Polish for an animal’s mouth, and it is slang for the face of an unpleasant person.
Archbishop Mordowicz is obsessed with building a sanctuary, and enters into shady deals with businessmen and the mob to illegally win real estate auctions (something that, sadly, is commonplace in Poland, not only in the building of places of worship). Meanwhile, an adult man who had been sexually abused by a priest as a child has an audience with Mordowicz and his aides. Mordowicz and his courtesans, though, are completely indifferent to this man’s pain, basically telling him to shut up, because if he talks about this he will do a lot of damage to the Church’s reputation.
I agree with Polish critics’ enthusiastic appraisal of Gajos (who, by the way, looks very good at seventy-nine). Gajos is perfect as a corrupt bureaucrat addicted to power. While undoubtedly there are prelates like Archbishop Mordowicz, he actually reminded me of several equally corrupt and repulsive Polish secular politicians. Gajos also gives some of the few moments of comic relief in this otherwise depressing film. If there were a Polish Best Supporting Actor Oscar, I would vote for Gajos without a second’s hesitation.
At the same time, he is so one-dimensional that he reminds me of villains in some of the cartoons I watched as a child in the early 1990s. Archbishop Mordowicz is kind of like Gargamel from The Smurfs… if every other word that came out of Gargamel’s mouth was obscene and if Gargamel (spoiler) had a penchant for Italian S&M clubs. He is the opposite of a complex villain like Hannibal Lecter.
Archbishop Mordowicz’s secretary is Father Lisowski, played by an average Jacek Braciak. Like Mordowicz, he is addicted to power and dreams of a career in the Vatican. His boss, though, blocks his aspirations and wants to keep him at his side. Angry, Lisowski bugs Mordowicz’s office to record material that could humiliate him and then blackmail the archbishop to let him go to Rome. Lisowski is slightly more complex than Mordowicz; in one scene, we see him crying upon reminiscing on his childhood spent in an orphanage run by a nun where minor offenses like wetting the bed were punished by brutal beatings (I was reminded of the infamous Magdalene laundries in Ireland) and rape (which, fortunately, occurs off-screen). However, he still is not a convincing character. Like Mordowicz, he has a pretty unoriginally symbolic name; lis is Polish for fox, an animal synonymous with cunning, and cunning Lisowski is.
Robert Więckiewicz plays the second priest-buddy, Father Trybus. Więckiewicz is widely believed to be one of Poland’s finest actors today, and I share this assessment. He was great as a petty criminal who first saves Jews in Lwów's (now Lviv's) sewers initially for financial gain yet has a change of heart and becomes a Holocaust hero in Agnieszka Holland’s In Darkness; he was also spot-on as Solidarity leader Lech Wałęsa in Andrzej Wajda’s Wałęsa: Man of Hope (a film that, unfortunately, did not have a North American release, although it was shown to members of the US Congress, where Wałęsa himself once gave an address). Robert Więckiewicz also played in my favorite Polish movie, 2007’s Wszystko będzie dobrze (“All Will Be Well”) a heart-breaking, beautiful, and brilliant movie that nearly brings me to tears about how to keep one’s faith when we suffer and it seems that God is not listening to our prayers; it is like the Book of Job set in present-day Poland.
In Clergy, however, Więckiewicz is disappointing. His character clearly has a drinking problem; for the first half of the film, he is shown constantly drink shot glass after shot glass after shot glass. This feels as if the director is insulting his audience’s intelligence; yes, Mr. Smarzowski, we understand that Trybus is an alcoholic. He does in fact seem completely wasted in every scene, but is this really that great acting? He knows how to play a drunk, as Więckiewicz has already done so in at least two other films.
Furthermore, Trybus is in love with his gosposia Hanka, an element of Polish Catholic culture that I have not seen in the United States. A gosposia is a woman who runs the presbytery, cleaning and cooking for the priests who live there.
Whereas Trybus is a weak character, Hanka – played very well by Joanna Kulig, who has been recently enjoying good coverage in the international press as a result of her strong role in Paweł Pawlikowski’s Cold War – is great. She plays what I would call a feminist Catholic and strong woman, yet one who is still enslaved by her infatuation for Trybus. When she tells him that she is pregnant, he gives her money and tells her to go to the Czech Republic and have an abortion. Chamie! Hanka shouts. “You bastard!”
This is another one of the parts of the film that works well. It would be an exaggeration to call Clergy a pro-life film. However, it shows one important aspect of the abortion debate that is missing, and one that the pro-abortion feminists oddly seem to ignore: that often times abortion results from the fact that men are too selfish to take care of the human life they have created, and treat abortion as a get out of jail card.
Ultimately, though, Trybus has pangs of guilt and travels to the gynecology clinic in the Czech Republic where Hanka is and convinces her to not kill her unborn child. He ultimately has a change of heart and in addition to deciding to accompany Hanka and their child, in literally the next scene he is shown pouring bottles of vodka into the kitchen sink.
Naturally, Trybus did the morally responsible thing. However, when did this road to Damascus occur? Nowhere in the film are we given a clue. This plot hole is probably the result of weak writing; after all, this was the screenwriter’s first film.
The final priest of the three is the most unambiguously positive and most charismatic. Father Kukuła is brilliantly played by Arkadiusz Jakubik. At the film’s beginning, he is show driving a car right after his drunken party with his chums, going through the motions while giving a dying woman the sacrament of the anointing of the sick (her family gives him money; however, Catholic priests do not receive a payment for the last rites), and hung-over in the confessional, completely blowing his penitent off. “Bless me father, for I have sinned. I have killed my unborn child,” she says. “What was your child’s name?”
These first couple scenes seem out of place, as Kukuła is a committed, charismatic, and even heroic priest. A newly ordained young priest comes to his parish, and Kukuła gives him advice deep from his heart when he deals with loneliness and doubt. “Be a good person, and you will be a good priest,” he tells him tenderly.
When one of Father Kukuła’s altar boys is raped, Kukuła makes an ambitious attempt to find the perpetrator and seek justice for the boy. He truly gives Christian witness and is a holy model priest. Eventually, though, his parishioners start to suspect that he was the rapist, and a lynching scene reminiscent of that in Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam breaks out at a funeral when his flock literally attacks him.
We learn that Kukuła himself had been raped by a priest as a young altar boy in the 1980s over the course of two years, which makes him even more determined and passionate in seeking justice for this poor boy. Here, however, we have another plot hole. One would think that someone who had such traumatic experiences with the clergy would never want to come near a church again. Why did Kukuła enter seminary? This is all the more puzzling, since of the four main characters, he is the one most deeply committed to his vocation. Was this Stockholm syndrome? Did Kukuła want to reform the Church after having seen sin within its structures? There is not even a hint at an answer.
When Kukuła learns that he cannot count on Mordowicz to pursue justice for the boy, he falls into despair and (major spoiler), as a sign of protest, decides to set himself on fire during the ceremony when the archbishop blesses the construction of his beloved shrine. When Kukuła is aflame, the crowds run from him, forming a triangle that unambiguously resembles the symbol of Divine Providence.
This final scene of Clergy is clumsy, even kitsch, and above all unoriginal. Apart from the very banal symbolism, self-immolation as protest is a very well-known motif in the part of the world where the film is set. After the Warsaw Pact armies invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, Jan Palach set himself on fire in Prague in protest, as did Ryszard Siewiec in Warsaw. Furthermore, Tadeusz Konwicki wrote an excellent satirical novel A Minor Apocalypse, published in 1979, that follows a Polish dissident writer whose friends ask him to set himself aflame in front of Warsaw’s Palace of Culture and Science to protest against the Communist Party.
In sum, Clergy does have some excellent motifs, brilliant performances, and characters that are convincingly endearing or repulsive. At the same time, it suffers from several disappointing performances, unoriginal plot elements, and plot holes. Thus my rating is: 2.5/4.
With regards to the alleged anti-Catholicism of the film, it must be said that the hysterical controversy surrounding the film occurred for the most part before its release, when only a handful of people had seen Clergy. For someone who had not yet seen the film, it seemed much more provocative than it is, for several reasons. First, the trailer, which is very misleading, presents the film as an anti-clerical satire that builds on stereotypes. Also, one of the posters, which arguably is offensive, presents a piggy bank with a cross as the slot. These promotional materials made the film ripe for controversy (and were a brilliant marketing strategy, because everything that is controversial sells). In a couple Polish cities, city councilors banned the film from being shown.
In reality, Clergy is at best mildly anti-clerical. As a practicing Catholic who loves his Church and is convinced that there are many more saintly priests than wicked ones, I found absolutely nothing in the film that would offend me. There were no sacrilegious scenes or those that mock any aspect of the Christian faith.
The film does critically present certain behaviors in the Church, such as Church officials who are more convinced about the Church’s reputation than the well being of those who have been greatly hurt by priests. However, it would be strange if a Catholic were not critical of such behaviors, which sadly have taken place (although, I would argue, they happened much more in, say, Ireland than in Poland). In fact, Clergy’s message is not at all different from things the two most recent popes have said. Shortly before his election, Benedict XVI deplored the “filth” of sexual abuse in the Church. Francis called such behaviors caca (literally, “crap”) and has condemned “careerism” in the Church, which is symbolized by Father Lisowski.
Critics of Clergy have accused the film of painting a distorted image of the Church, focusing more on the negative than on the positive. My response is that this is not a film about the Church as a whole, but about three priests (one of whom, I would argue, is saintly) and one bishop. Father Kukuła disproves the accusation that the film only paints priests as perverts, careerists, or drunks who do not take their vows of chastity seriously. Kukuła is truly a martyr, even if, of course, his martyrdom was suicide, which is inconsistent with Christian ethics. Yes, Kukuła was in conflict with Church authorities, but so were many saints: Padre Pio, Faustina Kowalska, and Joan of Arc, who, lest we forget, was sentenced to burning at the stake by a bishop.
Before his self-immolation, Kukuła is seen praying, which strongly suggests that he is not protesting against Christianity or even the Church, but against his sleazy bishop.
On the whole, it is a very good thing that Clergy was released in Poland. I am convinced that most priests are wonderful people, but even if there is one priest in the entire Church who causes harm to a child, that is one too many.
Many had expected that pious Catholics would hold mass rosary rallies in front of cinemas playing Clergy. However, most Polish priests’ reaction to the film have been much more circumspect. On Monika Olejnik’s popular television program, Father Józef Kloch, said that the film can bring catharsis to the Church, and if one priest sees himself on screen, maybe this will cause him to think about his life and convert. Father Adam Szustak, OP, Poland’s most popular preacher whose internet talks about the faith have hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube and who regularly fills up soccer stadiums to give retreats, has said that the film has led him to go walk from Lodz to Jerusalem as a penitential pilgrimage for his sins and those of other priests.
The biggest positive fruit of Clergy, however, has happened when at a press conference during the film’s premiere Arkadiusz Jakubik said that his childhood friend was molested by a priest in Opole. Immediately, Bishop Andrzej Czaja of Opole contacted the actor, who then put him in touch with his friend. Bishop Czaja informed the prosecutor’s office and the Vatican of this case of abuse. Shortly afterwards, Bishop Czaja issued a letter to all the faithful in his diocese read in every parish on Sunday in which he apologized for the sins of the clergy in Opole and gave statistics on the number of priests in the diocese who had been accused of abusing minors (by the way, this was a tiny proportion of the Opole clergy).
So even if Clergy has some artistic shortcomings, the film is a blessing because it has led to some purification of the Church and some Churchmen to think more critically and be more aware of the Judases who wear Roman collars.