Just two weeks after its theatrical release, Clergy is already shaping up to be one of Poland’s greatest domestic box-office successes. Wojciech Smarzowski’s latest film sold a record-breaking 935,357 tickets on its opening weekend, pushing 50 Shades of Grey (834,479) into second place on an all-time list dominated by blockbusters, both international (Shrek 3, Star Wars: The Force Awakens) and domestic (the likes of Patryk Vega’s Pitbull: Tough Women and Botox). After one week, the film had become Smarzowski’s most successful, with over 1.7 million tickets sold, and its popularity shows no sign of waning.
Unlike the unsubtle, big budget work of a director like Vega — characterised by The Guardian as “Polish gangster films ‘on steroids’” — Clergy is a biting satire that dryly deals with various controversies of the Catholic Church in Poland. It depicts the intertwining stories of Father Lisowski (Jacek Braciak), Father Kukuła (Arkadiusz Jakubik), Father Trybus (Robert Więckiewicz) and Archbishop Mordowicz (Janusz Gajos), all of whom harbour dark secrets. Money changes hands, vows of celibacy are broken and vodka is thirstily swallowed. In a country where almost 93 percent of the population identify as Catholic, this makes the success of Clergy all the more remarkable. Equally, it raises the question of whether the film offers something more meaningful than simple provocation of Poland’s most sacred institution.
Smarzowski is an auteur, known for his abject portrayal of Polish society. His Poland is drunken, rotten and depraved, yet not without humanity. His debut The Wedding (2004) uses the backdrop of a traditional village wedding to explore the ugly reality of personal greed in post-communist Poland. With its obsessive focus on hard cash, bodily disgust and the Polish predilection for a drink, The Wedding set the blueprint for his subsequent work. Smarzowski has continued to scratch at the scabrous underbelly of Polish society, exposing the institutional corruption of the communist Civic Militia in The Dark House (2009) and the modern-day police in Traffic Department (2013), as well as the violent morality of ethnic nationalism in the 1940s historical dramas Rose (2011) and Hatred (2016).
The cinema of Smarzowski is synonymous in Poland with brutal realism and bleak humour; bribery and alcoholism are almost always a given. He has previously shown glimpses of sinning priests abusing their power, but never fully explored the institution of Catholicism. The prospect of a Smarzowski film dedicated to the clergy thus carried with it a number of assumptions, many of which were confirmed in a trailer that showed clergymen handling money, hinted that one priest was a paedophile and culminated with a boozy parody of the Last Supper.
Since the film’s mid-September debut at the Polish Film Festival in Gdynia, criticism from Catholics and conservatives has been swift. The Catholic Association of Journalists called for a boycott of the “anti-clerical, anti-Catholic and anti-Polish film”; Paweł Soloch, the head of the National Security Bureau, suggested that the film was made in the same way “as Nazis did films about Jews”, while Jacek Kurski, the chairman of the Polish national state broadcaster TVP, denounced Clergy as “trashy” and “a cheap provocation”.
As the Russian historical romance Matilda proved last year, controversy and attempted censorship often result in increased publicity. This might account for Clergy’s high box-office, although provocation without meaningful critique would likely amount to nothing more than a short-lived gimmick. After claiming in a recent interview with The New York Times that the film is addressed to Catholics, Smarzowski added, “I hope after leaving the cinema, they will realise they are co-responsible for what they see on the screen.” This is without a doubt a direct and provocative statement. Yet Clergy’s sustained success surely transcends its controversy and perhaps speaks to a broad section of the Polish public who see the Catholic Church’s real controversial behaviour mirrored in the events of the film. As one commentator from the progressive Catholic quarterly Więz put it: “Were it not for the real sins of representatives of the Church, such a film would not have arisen.”
In one of Clergy’s most harrowing scenes, a video is shown of adult survivors recounting how priests sexually abused them as children. Actors perform in the video, but their words are lifted from authentic testimonies documented in a Polish book that gives voice to survivors of sexual abuse in the Church. Smarzowski consulted former and current priests during the production of the film, leading to an authentic and relatable portrayal of the clergy. Many events are inspired directly by real-life Church scandals that are immediately recognisable to Poles.
In 2011, Father Tadeusz Rydzyk — an ultra-conservative priest whose influential Catholic media empire has aired far-right views — was issued with a fine for illegal fundraising. His business vehicle continues to be awarded government grants and contracts. In 2016, Jacek Międlar — an Islamophobic and anti-Semitic priest once detained at the British border — held a mass at Białystok cathedral for members of the neo-Nazi group ONR. The Sister Bernadette affair exposed the decades-long abuse at the Special Educational Centre for child orphans in Zabrze, where nuns condoned a punitive system of physical intimidation, corporal punishment and rape. Last month, an appeals court in Poznań upheld the landmark ruling that the Church should pay compensation of one million zloty (£210,000) and an annuity of 800 zloty (£165) per month to a woman who was imprisoned and routinely raped by a priest when she was 13. The Church now plans to appeal the verdict at the Supreme Court. Each of the above events is depicted in some form in Clergy. And, in a tragic example of art imitating life, the Church consistently avoids taking responsibility for (or action against) its guilty clergymen and nuns.
This is not necessarily lost on the Polish public. 93 percent of the country identify as Catholic, but according to a recent poll, just 36.7 percent of those Catholics regularly attended Sunday mass in 2016. This figure is down from 51 percent in 1980 — the most rapid decrease across the 108 countries surveyed — and drops to 20 percent among Poles under 30 years old. As stark as this decrease is, it may be unwise to link it to Church scandals: the Church owes part of popularity to the period in the 1980s which saw the papal ascent of Karol Wojtyla, its resistance against government oppression and its efforts alongside Lech Wałęsa’s Solidarity trade union for a democratic state; these are much less relevant today.
Nevertheless, Polish society does appear to be critical of the Church, at least in relation to sexual abuse. Another recent poll suggested that 49 percent of Poles believe that the proportion of paedophiles among priests is similar to those in the rest of society; 41 percent believe it to be greater. This sentiment manifested itself last Sunday, when the Nie lękajcie się foundation published a map showing 255 cases of child sexual abuse by Polish priests, and held a march calling for the Church to stop protecting paedophiles in its ranks — the first march of its kind in Poland. The map was viewed by over 500,000 people within 24 hours.
In this respect, Clergy is perhaps better understood as a significant cultural marker that captures the increased pressure that the Church is under, alongside a present mood of scepticism. As its box-office success continues, it has fuelled public discussion in the run-up to the impending publication of a Church report on sexual abuse among the clergy. If the Church takes one lesson from Smarzowski, it might be that the Polish public appreciates brutal honesty, as difficult and as confrontational as that may be.
With additional research and translation assistance from Dorota Zaprzalska.