Movie about Church Sexual Abuse Is a Contentious Hit in Poland

By Alex Marshall
New York Times
October 8, 2018

Arkadiusz Jakubik in “Clergy.” The film, which has been dismissed as “provocative” and “trashy” by conservatives, has packed theaters in majority-Catholic Poland.

“Clergy,” a new movie by the director Wojciech Smarzowski, starts with three priests drinking vodka until they can barely speak. One then drives drunk to a parishioner’s apartment and mumbles his way through the giving of last rites.

The picture of Poland’s priesthood only goes downhill from there. The priests steal money from their congregations, spy on each other, and exploit their connections with politicians, journalists and the police.

But much of “Clergy” focuses on one issue: Clerical child abuse, which the movie says the church covered up. In one scene, it incorporates accounts from real people who say they were abused.

This may not sound like the plot for a blockbuster movie — let alone one that features a heavy dose of comedy — but “Clergy” is a smash hit in Poland. It opened on Sept. 28, and more than 1.7 million people saw it during its first week, according to Kino Swiat, the movie’s distributor. That is a huge figure for a country of 38 million.

A cinema in Zabrze, a city in the south of the country, showed the movie up to 24 times a day to meet demand, the newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza reported.

The film’s popularity is something of a surprise, given that Poland is a predominantly Roman Catholic country, with nearly 40 percent of the population attending a weekly Mass. The governing right-wing Law and Justice party promotes an image of Poland based on Christian values, and some of its members have attacked the film.

Jacek Kurski, a former member of Parliament for the Law and Justice party who is now the chairman of the state television company Telewizja Polska, called “Clergy” a “provocative, trashy movie” in an interview with the broadcaster. He added that it was “just another attack on the Catholic Church, brutal and untrue.”

A spokesman for the Polish Bishops’ Conference, the central organ of the church in the country, declined to comment.

“Clergy” stirred controversy in Poland even before it opened. On Sept. 21, it was shown at the Gdynia Film Festival, and received an 11-minute ovation. That made it a front-runner for one of the festival’s prizes, awarded to the movie that receives the longest applause. But the award was canceled soon afterward, leading newspapers to speculate that organizers had panicked about potentially having to give “Clergy” victory. The organizers denied that suggestion in a statement, saying the applause for other films in the festival had been interrupted, making it impossible to decide the prize fairly.

Mr. Smarzowski, the director, said in an email that he decided to make “Clergy” after being overwhelmed by the church’s power in Poland. “The church is present in our offices, on the street, and pushes us home and to bed,” he said. The church’s failure to deal with child abuse — “hiding pedophiles in their cassocks and transferring them from parish to parish” — also needed discussion, he said.

“This movie is addressed to Catholics,” he added. “I hope that after leaving the cinema, they will realize they are co-responsible for what they see on screen.”

Protesters outside the Powszechny Theatre in Warsaw in May 2017, where “The Curse,” was being performed. The sign reads ”Protect the cross from Giewont,” a mountain in the south of Poland, “to the Baltic Sea.”

The success of “Clergy” is even more unexpected given the reactions to recent productions at Polish theaters. In 2017, Catholics and right-wing groups protested regularly outside the Powszechny Theater in Warsaw, where “The Curse,” directed by the Croatian director Oliver Frljic, was being performed. In one of the iconoclastic play’s scenes, a woman performs fellatio on a sex toy attached to a statue of Pope John Paul II, who is an idol in Poland.

Actors in “The Curse” said they received threats. Foul-smelling butyric acid, sometimes used in stink bombs, was poured inside the theater, forcing it to shut for a month. Days after its premiere, prosecutors opened an investigation into whether anyone had committed blasphemy. (No one has been charged.) After the Polish theater festival Dialog tried to stage the play last October, promised funding was withdrawn.

Problems have continued for the Powszechny Theater. On Sept. 23, it was due to perform “The Curse” on tour in Slupsk, in northern Poland, but the venue was subjected to another butyric acid attack. The play had to be moved to a basketball court.

Pawel Lysak, the Powszechny’s co-director, said in a telephone interview that cultural censorship was a growing problem in Poland, but, he added, “Clergy” showed that the church’s history of child abuse could at least be discussed. “Now is a completely different time from when we did ‘The Curse,’ ” he said. “A year ago, the bishops did not talk at all about pedophilia. Now they do every week. It’s a very good time for ‘Clergy.’ ”

Pope Francis’ recent moves on clerical sexual abuse, including meeting victims during a trip to Ireland, focused many in Poland on the issue, Mr. Lysak added. Events in Poland may also have helped. On Oct. 2, an appeals court in the western city of Poznan ruled that a Roman Catholic order should pay damages to a woman who was sexually abused when she was 13. And next month, the Polish church will publish a long-anticipated report on child abuse.

Jan Klata, another Polish theater director, said he had also faced trouble for staging plays critical of the church and government. His contract as director of the Old Theater in Krakow was not renewed in 2017, although the venue was critically successful. “Why has the film not been protested?” he said in a telephone interview to discuss “Clergy.” “Because you can target one or two theaters that show a play. You can’t target 1,000 cinemas all over Poland.” To coordinate such a large protest would be “too complex,” he said.

Mr. Smarzowski said he was not worried about criticism from the government or state television. “They will pass and the film will remain,” he said. He has received many positive responses from priests, he added. “I am asked by priests about ‘Clergy 2,’ because they know that this institution needs to be repaired and want to tell me about further abuses. I get a lot of good energy from them,” he said.

Asked what his next film will be about, he said it was too early to say. But then he added, “Perhaps it will focus on the right wing.”








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