Few Polish films have made such an impact as director Wojciech Smarzowski’s latest feature, Clergy (Kler in Polish). Almost 4.5 million people watched the film during its first month of release, beating all previous records held by Quo vadis and Pan Tadeusz, films based on national literature.
The film has also become an international hit for Polish cinematography, earning 1.3 million US dollars in its first weekend in UK and Irish cinemas, the best ever opening weekend for a Polish film abroad.
Presenting as it does a less than favourable view of the Polish Catholic church, the film has also triggered a wide-ranging discussion amongst politicians, local authorities — with several of them banning the film — and Poles in general, including many who have not seen the movie.
Clergy is not the first film directed by Mr Smarzowski, who began his film career as a video camera operator, to cause controversy. His previous films, The Wedding, Rose, and Traffic Department, followed a similar course. Traffic Department told the story of seven policemen from Warsaw — colleagues and good friends whose lives change after one of them dies in mysterious circumstances. The film “had a huge impact on me: not only by presenting us with a brutal and — as always in the case of that film director — true social diagnosis but also by being a masterpiece that I haven’t seen in Polish cinema for quite some time,” wrote Tomasz Raczek, a film critic.
Clergy is “a searing, painful film that condemns the Polish Catholic church as corrupt and hypocritical,” Anne Applebaum wrote in the Washington Post.
“The church is present in our offices, on the street, and pushes us home and to bed. The church’s failure to deal with child abuse, hiding paedophiles in their cassocks and transferring them from parish to parish, also needed discussion. This movie is addressed to Catholics, I hope that after leaving the cinema, they will realise they are co-responsible for what they see on screen.”
Mr Smarzowski says he makes films on subjects that cause him pain or heartache:
“Of course, many things hurt me, but sometimes the moment comes when you have to say: enough. I felt and feel attached to the church and religion. Religion is everywhere.”
The final impetus for Mr Smarzowski to make the film was what he calls the collision with religion at school.
“My sons started their education and I suddenly realised the scale of the phenomenon. It is not about the individual case of my sons or about a particular priest, but about the fact that everything starts in school. Society is accustomed from an early age to the omnipresence of the church in life. The effect is that our children become brainwashed because they are brought up with superstitions,” he explains.
It’s not about destroying faith, but highlighting the corruption of the church.
For Smarzowski, making the film was not about demonising God or his own belief in God, but more about the institution of the church.
“From the beginning I decided not to discuss faith, because it is an individual and intimate sphere. The only topic I was interested was about the institution of the church, and a story about people, like me, the only difference being that they wear cassocks.”
Mr Smarszowski says he was able to achieve his goal of only shedding light on the church and not damaging people’s faith in God.
“I achieved what I set out to do, well… if you believe about twenty priests and a former clergyman whom I screened Kler for before the film’s release. They confirmed that I was not attacking the Catholic faith. I am aware that the priests who want to reform the church have questioned the current order. I am also aware that there will be accusations such as: What can Smarzowski know about the clergy? I am not concealing that I am an atheist looking at science.”
No one cares about the research
What strikes him as strange is that in reality those who criticise his film are not really interested in finding out about the measures he took in developing the script at every stage of the production process.
“Nobody will be interested in the fact that I consulted members and former members of the clergy regarding the script. In addition, the same priests told me that although I present a real picture, no one in Poland will believe it. First of all, people do not know the church from the sacristy. Secondly, there is a need in us to ignore certain things, not to notice them. Surprisingly, we can forgive priests a lot.”
In a country where the church is treated like a governing body, it is no surprise that priests are considered to have a higher status than other members of society.
“In many regions, a priest is treated like a saint. Of course, as in my films, like Clergy, the proportions have been slightly exaggerated, however in the film there is no shortage of priests by vocation. How many of them would actually dare to say what they think in reality?”, explains Mr Smarzowki.
Organised like the military, run like the Mafia
Another problem that Mr Smarzowski sees with the church is that while there is order and a strict structure to the organisation, comparable to that of the military, that is where the similarities between the two ends. He jokingly questions whether the organisation of the church is similar to that of the military or mafia, with the need to conform and placate older members of the clergy to progress your career.
“The seminary verifies the ideals of really engaged young men: these young men quickly begin to understand who their allies are, who they need to placate in order to be appointed to a rich parish in the city, rather than landing somewhere in the countryside. They often come up against problems they have not encountered before, because they are only 20 years old. Then add to that the fact that for the last six years they have been locked up. A great example in my view is the character Jan in the film, because it is up to priests like him how the church will look in the future – whether he will conform to the ways of his older colleagues or keep the values that he still has. This is one of those elements that brings some hope,” says Mr Smarzowski.
He believes that 90 per cent of Poland’s 33,000 clergy are hypocrites, and that many who are involved in the topics highlighted in the film such as greed, abuse, corruption, adultery, alcoholism, and paedophilia, are complicit in hiding it.
“The remaining 10 per cent are isolated and have been silenced. As the saying goes, a fish rots from the head down. I think that in the group’s hierarchy, there are many who have something to hide. I am accused of showing only the dark side of the church, but while preparing for this film, I understood that knowledge about this institution is very dispersed. There are striking reports, several books have appeared, sometimes a statement is made about a paedophile priest. It makes a noise for a day, and then the next day everything is swept under the table by the men in cassocks,” says Mr Smarzowski.
“It is only when you look at it as a whole that you can see how corrupt an institution the church truly is. I therefore tell all the critics: Clergy is a feature film, not a documentary, a film that allows me to encapsulate a world in a nutshell.”