In its opening weekend at the Polish box office, Kler [Clergy] was number one, its takings around six times the takings of the number two. In weekend number two, it still outgrossed the second place film by a factor of five, and that second place film was Venom on its opening weekend. That's despite, and possibly because of, the objections of the Catholic church to the film and some attempts to ban it. Kler does show the hold the Church has in a strongly Catholic country, and Wojciech Smarzowski's film is a pungent satire of the corruption inside it.
At first, Kler seems a broad comedy, of official figures misbehaving while off duty and not being as squeaky-clean as they would seem to be, rather along the lines of the traffic cops of Smarzowski's earlier local hit Traffic Department. Dozing off while hearing confession and lifting cash from the collection plate are not the worst of it. Three priests meet up, and have more than a few drinks, on the anniversary of a seminary fire which could have killed them. Andrzej Kukula (Arkadiusz Jakubik) becomes involved in the case of an altar boy who has attempted suicide. The medical investigation reveals that the boy has been sexually abused, something which triggers memories of Kukula's own youth in the seminary. Leszek Lisowski (Jacek Braciak) is involved with all sorts of not-quite-legal business deals for the Church. Tadeusz Trybus (Robert Więckiewicz) is fond of the booze, and is breaking his vow of celibacy with Hanka (Joanna Kulig), who is now pregnant and wanting an abortion, illegal in Poland.
Smarzowski's command of tone in the film is first-rate. After half an hour or so, the laughs largely die away and what's left is not funny at all. The theme of child sexual abuse is not graphically portrayed, for which many will be thankful. However, the verbal references, while not as graphic as those in the similarly-themed Chilean film The Club, are still strong enough to gain the film its 18 certificate. By the end of the film, when full extent of the corruption involved has become clear, any laughter has completely died in our throats. Smarzowski evokes the Last Supper in one shot, to icy effect and the final scene is dark indeed.
The film, shot in Warsaw and Kraków, with some scenes on locations in the Czech Republic (it's a Polish/Czech/Italian coproduction), is naturalistic in style and generally well paced over its slightly overlong two and a quarter hours. The lead performances, and Janusz Gajos as the local Archbishop are strong, with Kulig probably the best known outside Poland, for her roles in Paweł Pawklikowski's films, including one of the films of this year Cold War. Given a cinema release on the UK's well-established Polish-film circuit, Kler may not have the same impact in a more secular country like Britain, but its themes are still very recognisable here.