Kler: A Priest-man’s Lot Is Not a Happy One
To watch all two hours plus of the unexpectedly engaging Kler (2018) is to be reminded of the ubiquity of trial and temptation. Truly, as the script reminds us more than once, this temporal life is a vale of tears. We will need all the resilience of faith if we are to survive cohabiting with the spiritual guides whose dreadful (fictional?) stories are rendered here. And to survive the powerful, and powerfully corrupt, political organization to which our protagonists owe their livelihood. These are the evangelist Matthew’s “false prophets” signaled in the film’s epigraph.
At first blush, our “prophets” appear as if auditioning as the Three Stooges. (Never this writer’s favorite act; frankly, I loathed them.) Drinking lots of vodka will have that effect on the best of us, and drinking together is how we meet these characters. Not a good start. Do they drink? Does the pope have a balcony? (Forgery of the papal autograph for gain is one of the smaller corruptions practiced in this fallen Eden.)
If adolescent drinking games introduce us to these decidedly middle-aged men, their very masculinity seems tentative to us. They barely relate to each other; they’re functionally incapable of relationship. Their identity as kler (or clergy) is all they have, and it fits uncomfortably at best. Yet who would they be without this role? We will discover that.
But first, one of these priests voices drunken resentment at being summoned to administer extreme unction. He’s been called by this family before—hasn’t the old woman died already? Another falls asleep listening to a woman confess to having had an abortion, rousing himself only to ask the bewildered penitent what the child’s name was and to administer a penance at odds with the technical severity of her sin. Meanwhile, schoolchildren play voyeur as a teacher rapes one of their fellows; clerical sexual abuse is an open secret among them.
The clowning, then, has aleady darkened before we’re very far into the first act. Real-world consequences begin to appear: the altar boy suffers anal trauma requiring hospital attention; the housekeeper announces a pregnancy for which abortion is the father-priest’s preferred option. These men of God practice ongoing graft in the guise of extortionate fees for expedited premarital counseling and preferential gravesites; their superiors engage in theft of charity donations. Everything is about price. Inevitably, there’s an actual gangster involved in the sanctuary building initiative, a showy bricks-and-mortar project of what Guardian critic Mike McCahill calls, “Cosa Nostra in cassocks.” An unlovely inventory, to be sure. No wonder the national drink flows so freely—how else to still the beatings of conscience?
For all its big-picture canvas, Kler is chiefly concerned with the three priests, their untouchable loneliness and compensatory strategies. This loneliness pervades their lives like the ever-present damp. (Everywhere is squelch.) Ambition substitutes for human connection in the case of one. He’s bound for a sinecure at the Vatican whatever the cost to his moral probity, the community at large, the church itself. A minimal sexual release between consenting adults is the path of another, who manages to find a trickle of tenderness in lovemaking. How starved must his housekeeper be to settle for such meager rations? They will be tested as a couple. The third finally confronts his clerical abuser, but without satisfaction. The elder is old beyond recall, enduring a solitary and seemingly endless death vigil. (Is this Purgatory?) The sense here is existential, not Christian; the iconography of Christ’s passion a decorative irrelevance.
Yet, what’s left for the viewer after this trip to the netherworld? Are we reassured in our complacency and smugness—“I thank thee, Lord, that I am not as other men.”? Where do we stand with our own consciences?
Predictably, given today’s understanding of the origins of trauma, each of these men has a backstory, as well as their shared history, and these stories are carefully handled. For the most part, Kler avoids melodrama even as it inclines to soap, horrific subject material notwithstanding. And the film is a useful companion to Oscar winner Spotlight (2015), also reviewed in these pages. By concentrating on the offending priests, it fills in what is mostly left unexplored in the latter movie. Both films, meanwhile, share a reverence for what used to be called “the power of the press.” The coup of many a sociopolitical film, recourse to (threat of) publication extends a venerable faith in First Amendment efficacy. How this tradition will fare in our epoch of transnational war against journalism and journalists remains to be seen. For now, the device has the feel of nostalgia—and this in a film no more than 14 months old!
Kler opened to box office and critical acclaim, both on the festival circuit and back home in Poland, where it foreseeably attracted controversy. High production values, a decent budget and recognizable stars, combined with explosive content, almost guaranteed a positive return on investment. (A dizzying number of coproducers is listed.) The multiaward-winning director and cowriter, Wojciech Smarzowski, is known in his native Poland for both television and film, and Kler displays the confidence of this veteran’s experience.
Experience is also a hallmark of the lead actors, themselves multiple award winners, of whom Robert Wieckiewicz is probably the most familiar. In what can only be described as inevitable casting, Wieckiewicz played Lech Walesa in Andrzej Wajda’s 2013 biopic, a performance honored stateside by the Chicago International Film Festival. Walesa’s Solidarity movement makes a brief contextualizing appearance in Kler, as do the psychic wounds of authoritarian communism, ongoing antisemitism and resurgent fascism.
Of the protagonists, Wieckiewicz’s character enjoys the most theologically sound redemption, an exercise in humility that’s recognizable to the most humble, even as others will see it as a massive betrayal. The actor achieves a perfect fidelity in the process, for all that no audience may improve its liking of his all-too-human character as a result of these efforts. But perhaps a little compassion will be stirred … such are the strengths of the film, and they linger.
One of the storytelling skills of Kler—part of what keeps us engaged—is how the denouements of these characters are all of a piece with their individual stories. You might interpret their fates as having been predetermined, or alternatively, that character begets resolution. As we increasingly glimpse their trauma legacy, the movie’s second act focuses on the present-day challenges that force the character issue. By the end, each priest gets what he (unwittingly?) wanted, or to reframe, has fulfilled his destiny. Moral agents now; Larry, Moe and Curly no longer. Acknowledging this plot point is not to suggest that the ending lacks tragedy or cynicism or epiphany or triumph; all are here. The effect is powerful.
Yet, what’s left for the viewer after this trip to the netherworld? Are we reassured in our complacency and smugness—“I thank thee, Lord, that I am not as other men.”? Where do we stand with our own consciences? It is even fair to burden a fiction with such questions, given that Kler has already brought us many satisfactions? Perhaps a work so unabashedly forthright about systemic corruption (spiritual, personal, material) begs the question: Is there any hope for our sinful tribe, or is it possible only to take comfort in the individual exercise of accountability, for that’s the most we’ll get here?
Isn’t it the measure of art that, in experiencing our (emotional) catharsis, we must also grapple with (intellectual) meaning? If so, Kler has earned its place.