The Man Who Was Thursday (2016)

“Come quickly and hear me, oh Lord!”, declares man of the cloth Smith (François Arnaud), as he prays at the foot of his apartment bed in Providence, Rhode Island, having just awoken from a dream of lying in a burning church. “My soul is weakening. Do not hide your face from me. Do not let me be like the dead who go down to the Underworld.”

In keeping with his name, the conflicted Smith is an everyman, and his words are addressed to a God whose very existence this Catholic is starting to question. Having paid his dues as a prison chaplain for many years, and now leading a church in Providence, Rhode Island, Smith drinks and doubts his way through the daily motions of a priest’s calendar – the weddings, the funerals, the sermons, the confessions – and occasionally succumbs to other temptations of the flesh. Then, after crossing a line with a seductive churchgoer, and losing everything, he takes desperate measures that make his dream of altar-side hellfire a reality – and finds himself in Rome, flip-flopping as double-agent for a variety of conflicting causes.

If Balazs Juszt’s The Man Who Was Thursday opens with an infernal dream (which is also a premonition), its subsequent narrative will be dominated by oneiric shifts between a contemporary present and a past in the midst of Mussolini’s wartime dictatorship, with either time-frame regularly punctuated by the recurrent motif of Smith waking. His state of confusion is also ours, as his terms of reference, and the very fabric of his existence, keep changing, and his allegiances and trust are stretched this way and that. Smith is recruited from a Roman rehabilitation facility by old friend and ‘Vatican Intelligence’ agent Charles (Jordi Mollà) to infiltrate a shadowy outfit of youthful, ex-church anarchists and to identify their mysterious absentee leader, nicknamed Sunday. Smith (now codenamed Thursday) finds a hedonistic group, nominally led by fallen nun Saturday (Ana Ularu), and hell-bent on overthrowing the current order with their own religion-inverting brand of chaos.

Smith’s search for Sunday soon merges with parallel quests for other authority figures, whether Il Duce, the Pope, or God himself, as the wayward priest, who stated near the film’s beginning that he wanted to be “tested”, finds himself lost in a postmodern world of moral relativism where clashing values and loyalties all stake their competing claims on his divided soul. Uncertain whether it is God, Satan, or someone else entirely, who is manipulating the irrational play of events from behind the scenes, Smith struggles to work out who to believe, or to believe in – blind to the true identities of those right in front of his face. Meanwhile the genuinely blind Jack (Mark Ivanir), from behind the counter of his red-lit bar (with ‘REDRUM’, from The Shining, graffitied just outside), pours out ambiguous wisdoms along with bourbon, and serves as a medium between different realities.

Ambiguities and double meanings abound in Juszt’s adaptation of G.K. Chesterton’s 1908 novel The Man Who Was Thursday. The original was both a metaphysical thriller and an allegory of its author’s religious views – but Juszt has foregrounded the book’s Christian aspect by relocating the action to the Catholic church itself, and turning its hero into a forsaken messiah nailed to an eternal, apocalyptic conflict that he never fully understands. Setting fascism against freedom, and hiding the devil in its details, this feature debut is an ambitious, sophisticated passion play that leaves Ron Howard’s dumb-assed The Da Vinci Code (2006) in its dust.

© Anton Bitel