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Film review: KLER

19 October 2018

Stephen Brown reviews a story of erring priests in the Polish Church

© Bartosz Mrozowski

A still from the Polish film Kler (Clergy)

A still from the Polish film Kler (Clergy)

KLER (Cert. 18) is a Polish film (English title: Clergy) concerning three Roman Catholic priests. Trybus ministers in a deprived area of countryside. He’s played by Robert Wieckiewicz, probably best known for his portrayal of Lech Walesa in Man of Hope (Arts, 13 October 2013). Lisowski (Jacek Braciak) works in an urban church. The third is Kukule (Arkadiusz Jakubik), struggling in another parish near by to win the confidence of his flock.

Among the things that they hold in common is some dark secret. This is not exactly a new plot, but, unlike such films as Spotlight (Arts, 29 January 2016), which did little more than castigate its clerical offenders, there is a degree of understanding for what they are — or, rather, what they have become. The screenwriter-director Wojciech Smarzowski amply illustrates how the sins of these Fathers have been visited upon those for whom they have a duty of care. He also identifies an ecclesiastical system that has stifled their humanity.

It is like a game of chess, only here an avaricious archbishop (Janusz Gajos), not the King, must be protected at all costs. By daring to scrutinise every character’s situation, the film has raised the ire of powerful forces in Poland. This feels unfair. The devices and desires of all-too-fallible clergy which we witness at length — the movie runs for two and a quarter hours — include ones relating to sex. Trybus tells the young Hanka (Joanna Kulig, recently seen in Cold War), as he kisses her, “I’m a shepherd who, out of many sheep, loves one most.” Add stealing from the collection, corruption at the highest levels, pastoral inattention, drunkenness, abuse of power, etc., and we have a cornucopia of wrongs.

The plot then moves on to demonstrate how Trybus, Lisowski, and Kukule are not only erring priests, but also victims. They share the same failings as the rest of humanity. This is important. But for that dimension the picture is at times in danger of portraying a simplistic view of these clergy, without any depth of characterisation.

Indeed, we could easily be misdirected through admiration of the narrative’s twists and turns: of how and what brings the trio together as they celebrate getting through their respective ordeals. Kler put me in mind of Pablo Larraín’s The Club (Arts, 25 March 2016). Some disgraced Chilean priests are sent to a house of correction to atone and make amends for their sins. We come to know them and, by doing so, learn that they are neither gods nor monsters, but damaged people.

By implication, Larraín forces audiences to centre on their own deeds and misdeeds. We are, ultimately, a mystery to one another. I don’t think Kler manages to search our own hearts in quite the same way, but we should be grateful that it does not descend into caricature. Where it is skilful is in identifying the spiral upon spiral of self-deceit which organisations, including the Church, are capable of. An institution can be composed of well-intentioned human beings who wittingly or unwittingly collude in the solidarity of sin.

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