A “metaphysical thriller” published by G K Chesterton in 1908, the last century has seen a vast change in the role of religion on the world stage, with advances in science, scandals within the church and a wave of rational secularism which will likely eventually sweep such superstitious vestiges out of positions of political power and moral authority and under the metaphorical rug of historic anachronism. Thus, it is little surprise that the faith of Father Smith (The Borgias‘ François Arnaud) is in crisis.
Every morning he wakes and prays, every morning he fries an egg and adds whisky to his coffee, every day he ministers to his congregation, offers food to the homeless, hears confessions, but he is empty, feeling nothing for God or his fellow man, and going through the daily motions with an empty soul he is not helping his flock. Young and isolated, he is easy prey to temptation in the form of the woman who startles him with her directness in her confession, ticking off her checklist of sins, following the words of his recommended penance with her rouged lips as though mocking him.
When she returns, beaten, bleeding, pursued by men to whom she owes money, the father conceals her, offers her sanctuary; she offers him her deepest thanks, and a downward spiral is begun which will see Father Smith robbed and recalled to Rome in disgrace having set fire to his own church, an incongruous figure travelling in his leather jacket, shades and dog collar to what is likely to be his excommunication.
He is greeted by his friend Charlie (Riddick‘s Jordi Mollà), an agent of Vatican intelligence who is in need of an operative to penetrate a group who have been perpetrating acts of vandalism and religious desecration; should the Father accept the offer to locate and infiltrate these escalating anarchists, Charlie says he will arrange for personal pardon from the Pope and a posting anywhere in the world he desires. The contact he is looking for goes by the name of Sunday.
Consciously stilted in the scenes set in Boston before moving to a more natural flow as it moves to the source, The Man Who Was Thursday was adapted and directed by Balazs Juszt, his feature debut filmed in his native Hungary as well as the magnificent classical architecture of Italy. Cryptic yet engaging, there are obvious parallels to the religious conspiracy thrillers of Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons, though obviously Chesterton beat Brown to the punchline by nine decades, as did Roman Polanski with his excellent 1999 supernatural mystery thriller The Ninth Gate which this also strongly recalls.
Pursued by skinheads looking for violence on the cobbled streets of the Holy City, the unspent passions of Father Smith find focus as he becomes embroiled in the activities of the group who are already convinced they have a mole in their ranks, a witness to murder and a murderer himself, unsure whether he is a pawn or a traitor and suffering from visions or memories of another life, the present echoing events under the rule of Benito Mussolini’s National Fascist Party and the underground resistance.
With a superb supporting cast including Emerald City‘s Ana Ularu as Saturday, a former nun who regards herself as liberated from morality and the driving rogue intellect behind the group, True Blood‘s Theo Alexander as Friday, Federico Galavis as Wednesday, Homeland‘s Mark Ivanir as the blind barman Jack and the manipulative Molla using Father Smith, now codenamed Thursday, in both past and present, it is only Arnaud who seems unable to shake the ennui of is early scenes, lacking the authenticity and conviction of the others.
With its world premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, The Man Who Was Thursday is wilfully oblique and low-key and so unlikely to garner major attention but will certainly find an audience on the arthouse circuit for those who enjoy beautifully crafted and thoughtful curios of existential questioning, a film whose gentle whispers offer more substance than can be heard in the noise of the multiplexes.