Monday, February 19, 2018

The Churchmen - a film review

Center: Clément Manuel as Guillaume, surrounded by (from
bottom left) Julien Bouanich, as Yann; David Baiot as
Emmanuel; Thierry Gimenez as Fr. Bosco; Jean-Luc Bideau
as Fr. Fromenger, Clément Roussier as Raphaël; Samuel Jouy
as José
One of the challenges I have in my life is a variation on the Catholic maxim, “Hate the sin, love the sinner.” Only in my case, it’s “hate the Catholic Church, love the Catholic.”  And right away, I see the need to ask myself why it is I need to type the word “hate” in connection with that church, instead of immediately backing up and typing a euphemism. “Be suspicious of,” maybe. “Be aware of.” “Limit the damage of.” The answer is, if I’m honest, I have to admit that I’m dealing with a profound loathing for the Roman Catholic Church as an institution, and will likely be doing so for the rest of my life.

I was not raised a Catholic, but I was raised in a culture where authoritarian forms of religion held sway, the two chief forms being the clerical form of Roman Catholicism and the fundamentalist literalist version of Evangelicalism among the Protestants of the world. So early on I had to learn to separate out blind followers from sincere seekers, those who use the church to satisfy their need to bully from those simply trying to make sense of life. In time I adjusted to the split and recognized that it’s not “the church” that evokes such feelings, but the authoritarianism that bothers me.  And right away, that divides organized religion into two camps – those lacking in humility who insist they know the mind of god, and those using their cultural traditions to create meaning out of the chaos and uncertainty of existence, and to center that meaning around a notion of what we all recognize as virtues: truth, love, compassion, forgiveness, generosity, kindness and I’m tempted to add a good sense of humor.

I mention this only in passing as a way of making plain the lens I’m looking through in writing a review of a religious film in which the heroes are practicing Catholics, and the villains are the clericalists who reflect the authoritarian side of the official church. Even though I cannot share the values and the goals of the heroes, I can live with them, even love some of them, all the same. 

I just finished binge-watching a very long made-for-TV series produced by Zadiq Productions and Arte France called Ainsi soient-ils in French (So be it), and The Churchmen in English – three seasons of eight hour-long episodes each. It is about a freshman group of seminarians at the Capuchin Seminary in Paris, with particular emphasis on five young men, several of their teachers, and a young nun. The series has been around for a while, having run between October 2012 and October 2015 in France, and simultaneously in Quebec and Belgium, as well. Also in Italy, under the title Uomini di Fede (Men of Faith). Upon receiving critical acclaim, a third season began in October of 2015. This review comes as a result of all three seasons being made available through Netflix in the United States.

The story revolves around the moral dilemmas the seminarians and their mentors find themselves in, the struggle between their vows and their consciences. Leading figure is Father Étienne Fromenger, whose heart, despite his role as seminary head, is with the poor and others on the perifery of life. Fromenger fiddles with the books and takes money from rich realtors to keep the seminary afloat and is discovered by the righteous Father Dominique Bosco. Bosco subsequently comes down with cancer and then has an encounter with a woman whose spirituality lies outside the church and whose healing hands shake his faith both physically and emotionally. Counterpoints to these saintly men are the ambitious Monseigneur Joseph Roman, president of France’s Bishops’ Conference in Season 1 and his successor, Monseigneur Poileaux, a more “papabile” official, who moves to the center of subsequent Vatican infighting and intrigue in Seasons 2 and 3.

But it’s the five novice seminarians, Yann, Emmanuel, Guillaume, Raphaël, and José, whose character development is what makes the series, in my view. It’s not often, in an ensemble piece, that virtually all of the main characters draw you in as surely as these guys do and make you care so much what happens to them. Their challenges become your challenges. Other, by no means minor, characters, Sister Antonietta, Father Fromenger’s assistant and Father Honoré Cheminade, play extremely sympathetic roles, as well.

To list the plot devices around the moral dilemmas would make this series sound like a soap opera. It deserves better. A couple of serious ones are the relationship between Guillaume and Emmanuel, who fall in love with each other, and the discovery, by Yann, once he has left the seminary in Season 3 and gone out into the world, that his superior is a child molester. I’ll stop there. One should not spoil a great binge-watch. You could take it slow, of course, but if you’re like me, you won’t be able to resist the cliffhangers.

The Churchmen has plenty of flaws. Things often happen too fast, and there isn’t sufficient thought sometimes behind the resolution of a particular challenge. The music is lovely, but the context to the singing is unrealistic. Particularly absurd is the way in which a group of tone-deaf kids are transformed into a choir that would rival the Vienna Choir Boys. But one forgives these foibles for the love of art and the charity which shines through so many scenes.

A particular fascination for me was the way in which the series remained watchable despite a very heavy dose of religious affirmation. Belief testimonials have a way of making my eyes glaze over. I mentioned earlier that I see the Roman Catholic Church as two separate churches, one focused on spirituality and pastoral care, the other on the trappings of power and wealth. The Churchmen comes directly out of the former, what progressive Catholics would like to call the authentic church. Sins are readily forgiven, the church is viewed as a big tent organization, and doing the right thing involves bending the rules for the sake of compassion.

There is, of course, the other side. The series came in for some hefty criticism from the clericalists. This criticism by Jean-Marie Guénois, religious commentator for Le Figarowill serve to present the view from a traditionalist's perspective: 
Non seulement cette série travestit une réalité mais elle est une antithèse du christianisme puisque son ressort n'est pas l'amour pour le Christ mais la volonté humaine. Ces jeunes hommes ne sont pas des apprentis chrétiens mais des apprentis stoïciens qui, par leur propre volonté, vont tenter d'atteindre un idéal. Pas étonnant donc que la plupart échouent face aux tentations de la vie....  (L)e moteur de la série reste le « scandale » et la « caricature à l’extrême », qu’il reconnaît comme « l’ingrédient de toute fiction, causée selon lui par « une imposture : mettre à la place du christianisme ce qui n’est pas le christianisme. 
Not only does this series disguise a reality, but it is an antithesis of Christianity since its source is not the love of Christ but the human will. These young men are not Christian apprentices but Stoic apprentices who, by their own will, are reaching for an ideal. No wonder then that most fail when encountering the temptations of life…. The engine of the series remains "scandals" and "caricatures in the extreme", which he sees as "the ingredient of any fiction.” This, says Guénois, is "a fraud put in the place of a Christianity which is not Christianity. (translation mine)
Jean-Marie Guénois, « Ainsi soient-ils : une imposture [archive] », in Le Figaro, jeudi 11 octobre 2012, page 41. (Footnote 43, cited here) 

No critique of the spirituality-centered branch of the church could say it better: “You’re not the real church," say the keepers of the keys.  "We (the clergy-centered) are the real church. You want to make it into something modern, something that will let you have your cake and eat it too. But we know that can’t be done. We are here to tell you that the truths of the magisterium are unchanging. The church cannot err. What was, is now, and always will be."

Translated: Give up your expectation that women will have standing in the church, that homosexuality will ever be “normalized,” that birth control and abortion will ever be accepted, that celibacy for religious will be abandoned.

Many years ago now, I went to see a psychotherapist and in the course of our conversations, I mentioned that I had once held religious views but had given them up. The therapist responded, “You’ve only given up the idol. The mold it was made in will probably remain in you forever.”

To my husband, religion is a silly thing to get involved with. A thing of the past, a human foible, something that belongs on the ash heap of history. If you share this view, The Churchmen will not be your cup of tea.

On the other hand, if you see what's left of the world of priests in training with affection, or if you see religiosity as just one of those things that sometimes makes people interesting, there are far worse ways to spend twenty-four hours.

photo credit


Bill Sweigart said...

Thank you for a wonderful review. I look forward to viewing the series. But best of all, I will take from your blog the utterly brilliant sentence: "Only in my case, it’s “hate the Catholic Church, love the Catholic.” Thank you so much. I may get this on a bumper sticker for my car.

Stannorton said...

If you don't have the Catholic Church you don't have the catholic.

Alan McCornick said...

With all due respect, I beg to differ, Stannorton. Of course you can have one without the other. I didn’t have to love the Soviet Union to love Russian people and Russian culture. I don’t have to love Mao Tse Tung to like pan-fried noodles. I don’t have to like religion to respect somebody else’s conviction that religion provides a foundation for their life. And as for “the catholic Church”, I can only repeat what I said earlier, that there are two conflicting views of just what that is. One is the conviction put forth at Vatican II, that the ecclesia is the body of believers viewed collectively. The other (call it a Vatican I perspective) is the ever-receding belief that the church consists of the hierarchy, which gives the orders, and the masses, who follow them. I understand that if you poll people you find that the latter view is responsible for the massive exodus from the church. As church after church is sold, converted to a museum, or abandoned, the Church is, I believe, on its way out. Time will tell whether I have guessed right on that.