Even though Wojciech Smarzowski’s Clergy was bound to achieve commercial success, it turned out to be a one-dimensional and artistically unfulfilled film.
Despite its scandalous nature, Wojciech Smarzowski’s film disappoints both those who wanted it to "change the face of the Earth" and provoke a discussion about the Catholic church’s role in public life and those who thought that Smarzowski, in his usual manner, would "go medieval" on the clergy. His work is too trivially anticlerical to start a serious discussion and, at the same time, too timid to bring purgation.
Wociech Smarzowski wanted to poke the hornet’s nest. Instead of balancing the arguments, he created a pamphlet directed at the institution of the church and the alliance between the throne and the altar. His heroes, three middle-aged priests, are not likeable at all. They guzzle vodka, crash cars while drunk, use their social status to evade responsibility, and treat their congregation as mindless sheep which they shear without restraint.
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Greedy, lewd, and power-hungry – this is how Smarzowski views Polish priests. There is no counterbalance – the bishop played by Janusz Gajos resembles a political player from House of Cards who learned Polish curse words by chance instead of a man of faith. His entourage consists of yeasayers, slyboots and calculating fools. Only the young vicar (played by Jan Zaremba) seems to remember his calling.
However, Smarzowski, while drawing a caricature of the Polish church, he attacks his heroes but defends them at the same time. He shows their life circumstances and the road that broke their moral spine. He tells of people who were hurt and who, after many years, began to hurt others. Even if it sounds empty on a psychological level, it helps the viewer to identify with Clergy’s characters and to trace elements of humanity in them.
Smarzowski does not attack the individuals but the institution of the church – and he wants his blows to hurt. He attacks in a very precise manner and targets issues which have been present in the church for a long time. He recalls the Polish nationalist priest Jacek Międlar and quotes the bishop’s statement about children provoking paedophilic acts. In Clergy, he depicts the church as an organisation similar to the Mafia – its foundation is corporate loyalty and not faith. He shows the institution suspending inconvenient priests who try to purge the church of its sins and the unsinkability of the evildoers.
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While the image of priests as greedy drunks comes across as somewhat trite, the Solidarity theme present in Clergy is more interesting. The director, who had already pointed out the emptiness of the myths of Solidarity in The Dark House, takes it one step further this time – he sees the Solidarity era as the beginning of the church’s privilege and of its vast influence on the social reality. Smarzowski shows that the church, which contributed to the fall of the communist regime in Poland, has also guaranteed itself the position of an omnipotent and infallible institution and, today, uses this position for damaging society rather than improving it. One might wonder if this intuition is going to be picked up by Smarzowski’s critics or whether they will be satisfied with a story about the evil anticlerical slandering Polish values.
By speaking about the sins of the Polish Catholic church, Smarzowski once again proves to be one of the Polish cinema’s smoothest storytellers. In Clergy, he reaches out for the formula which he tested before in Traffic Department, among other films. It starts in comedic tones, serving the audience more or less refined gags, and later becomes more dramatic. Smarzowski’s film starts as a grotesque pamphlet and finishes as a morality play and a call for a purifying dialogue.
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Clergy is not merely a collection of sketches about the lives of fallen priests but a quite precisely woven dramatical composition in which unconnected themes turn out to be parts of a bigger whole. The part starring Robert Więckiewicz is an exception – it seems to be a needless addition and does not contribute much to the story. Perhaps if the director had dropped it, he would have been able to deepen the interesting story about the priest accused of paedophilia or expand the image of the tug-of-war taking place in the bishop’s palace.
Clergy is not the Polish equivalent to McCarthy’s Spotlight nor the artistically more mature Vinterberg’s The Hunt. Most likely, it will not initiate great discussion and will allow the quarrelling publicists to remain at their posts. Still, it is an interesting film, a fiery pamphlet and, at the same time, a story filled with humour and irony. It is worth seeing even if it will not alter the face of the Earth – if only for the great performances delivered by Jacek Braciak, Janusz Gajos, and Arkadiusz Jakubik.
Clergy, director: Wojciech Smarzowski, screenplay: Wojciech Smarzowski, Wojciech Rzehak. Cinematography: Tomasz Madejski. Music: Mikołaj Trzaska. Starring: Janusz Gajos, Jacek Braciak, Robert Więckiewicz, Arkadiusz Jakubik, Joanna Kulig. Polish premiere: 28 September 2018.
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