Culture & Society Poland Politics & International

Hit movie about clergy corruption shakes up Catholic Poland

Warsaw, Poland – Kler, Wojciech Smarzowski’s new movie, was released in Polish theatres over one week ago, sparking controversy and a nation-wide debate that has divided the staunchly Catholic nation in two, apparently irreconcilable camps on the issue of clergy corruption in Poland.

The director (Rose, The Dark House, Hatred) is well-known for dealing with difficult issues in his work. His latest movie, shedding some light on the clergy’s internal conflicts, is no exception.

Movie Kler takes a swing at clergy corruption in Poland

Kler (Clergy) depicts the life of Polish Catholic priests to whom “nothing human is alien”: they drink, make children, commit sexual abuse and get their hands dirty in day-to-day politics. During the first week-end, almost one million viewers rushed to see the film, breaking attendance records of the best opening weekend since 1989, according to the Association of Polish filmmakers (topping, along the way, Fifty Shades of Grey as the country’s biggest blockbuster).

Poland’s Catholics and conservative circles were quick to lead the charge: accusing Smarzowski of being anti-Catholic, unrealistic, biased and one-sided in his portrayal of the clergy, critics have called for the boycott of the movie. The chief of the National Security Bureau compared Kler to Nazi propaganda movies, while the Catholic Association of Journalists called Smarzowski “the enemy of the Polish people”.

Far-right weekly Fronda called it “anti-Catholic leftist propaganda […] based on the most vulgar prejudices”. Due to the refusal of Polish parishes, all the scenes of the movie shot in and around churches had to be filmed in the Czech Republic.

On the opposite side, many praised Smarzowski’s hyperbolic style and moving film, believing it was essential to start a long-overdue discussion about the role of the Catholic Church in Polish society. “The film amounts to a very serious conversation with Poles” about the sins of the church, actor Janusz Gajos for instance told TVN24.

Controversy and debate

But the nation-wide controversy isn’t only about the movie itself and started as soon as the trailer was released. Last month, Kler premiered at the Gdynia Film Festival. Shortly before the final ceremony, the annual contest for the most applauded movie of the festival was cancelled.

Organizer public Radio Gdansk announced – incidentally when Kler was leading – that it was due to the malfunction of the device used to measure the applause and the “impossibility of objective assessment of survey accuracy”, causing discontent among viewers and journalists working at the radio. The “Golden Clapper” prize (Zloty Klakier) was not awarded this year.

Anticipating the outcome of the Gdynia Film Festival, the national TV – managed by fervent PiS supporter Jacek Kurski – censored the broadcast of the final gala and completely cut out the moment when Wojciech Smarzowski accepted the Audience Award.

The timing of the movie’s release, in the final stages of local election campaigning, has a lot to do with the turmoil it caused. In the weeks following its premiere, media have been reporting about several places across Poland where the movie might be banned from state-funded theatres.

The only cinema in Ostrołęka banned the movie: its management refuses to answer questions about the reason behind the decision, while Poland’s human rights ombudsman is looking into whether that decision breaches the constitution. In Zakopane, the owner of the building of the local cinema has been trying to block the release. In Ełk, members of the local council adopted a motion banning the movie from the town’s cinemas, arguing that “the pope says the Church is our mother” and “you don’t spit on mother”.

Sexual abuse cases in the spotlight in Catholic Poland

The movie came under the spotlight the same month as a landmark ruling on sexual abuse and as debate about corruption within the clergy intensifies in Poland. Poznan’s appeals court recently ruled that a Roman catholic order, whose priest was accused of sexually abusing a 13-year-old girl, had to pay damages of 1 million zloty.

Taking advantage of his status, the defendant had convinced the parents of the teenage girl to transfer her to a boarding school, but instead imprisoned her, raped her during several months and even forced her to have an abortion. The congregation in question, the Society of Christ Fathers, supported the priest until the very last day of the legal proceedings and never took disciplinary action against him.

In the meantime, Kler has already had an impact on Church politics. The military bishop decided to publish data about pedophilia in his department, while the archbishop of Poland declared that the Church will publish a general report on sexual abuse in the coming months.