With the preliminary recap that opens episode six of The Churchmen, it is clear that the first season is heading into its final stretch. This recap is the first one of the season to recall scenes from nearly every episode we have seen thus far, and conflicts affecting all the characters are handled reasonably well within the forty-five minute episode.
While developing five separate conflicts without resolving them and connecting those conflicts within one episode is challenging to pull off successfully, this episode mostly succeeds, largely because by this point the personality of all the characters has been well established, and the characters are consistent and familiar enough that their choices seem believable. The lack of resolution for any of the conflicts does give this episode a strong feeling of existing primarily to set up another episode. Naturally, it remains to be seen whether the final two episodes of The Churchmen will be a satisfactory conclusion to episode six’s buildup, although I have so far been impressed enough to think it will be.
The first conflict shown in episode six is a return to the vendetta from episodes one and two between Monsignor Roman and Father Fromenger. Having received the Vatican’s letter to force Fromenger to retire, Roman cancels his meeting with the Little Sisters of the Poor so he can drive to the seminary and hand Fromenger his dismissal in person, making him more of a villain than I initially thought. However, tensions between the Vatican and the Chinese government have been mounting through the past few episodes, and as it turns out, the Chinese ambassador to the Vatican is good friends with Fromenger, and it appears that Fromenger is the only person who can act as a peacemaker. This twist to keep Fromenger at the seminary borders on deus ex machina, but even if it is slightly unbelievable, watching the two cardinals (one Roman’s friend, the other sympathetic to Fromenger) argue over the best way to resolve the tensions with China is compelling drama.
Meanwhile, back at the seminary, several characters are going through crises. Father Bosco is handling his revelation about Fromenger from the last episode with extreme bitterness, which would be expected considering that he idolized Fromenger, and Fromenger failed to live up to Bosco’s expectations. Yann is reeling with disillusionment and an unwillingness to forgive himself after his mistake from the last episode, which also would be expected given his optimistic worldview contained a sort of denial which did not leave much room for sin or mistakes. Raph has suffered a painful family tragedy, and with his natural leadership skills he takes over his family’s affairs, temporarily leaving the seminary. Finally, both Guillaume and Emmanuel are gay and are struggling with affection for each other.
The show seems to be laying the groundwork for four of the five seminarians to withdraw from the seminary at the end of their first year. At the same time, there is a recurring theme that everyone is a mortal human being who makes mistakes, and those mistakes do not disqualify us from fulfilling our God-given vocation. (For the record, while I know many Catholics will disagree with me, I don’t see a particular reason why a man with a same sex attraction could not be a priest. An inability to deny one’s sexual temptations (either homo- or hetero-) and live a life of celibacy is, in my mind, far more disqualifying, and both Guillaume and Emmanuel may lack that control.)
The one seminarian who seems most determined and most suited to become a priest is the ex-convict Jose, and there is a very nice moment where he shines as a natural leader, teacher, and peacemaker, using the story of the Tower of Babel both to quell an argument and teach others about the dignity of all human beings.
At this point, while The Churchmen has overall been positive in its portrayal of Catholicism, accepting the characters’ faith as a natural outlook on life, I do wish to express a little disappointment that the more difficult teachings of the Catholic Church, while not ignored, have been given short shrift when they arise. Guillaume’s argument against abortion in the fourth episode was pathetically weak. An earlier episode alluded that Fromenger disagrees with the Church’s teaching on contraception. While the writers clearly are aware of what actions are grave enough to be a mortal sin, they sometimes seem to be unaware that any sin requires a free act of the will. (Thus Yann’s mistake is somewhat mitigated by his accidental imbibing of a spiked drink.) In this episode, nearly every priest strictly adheres to the now discontinued policy of no funeral for someone who commits suicide, seemingly forgetting that while suicide is gravely immoral, culpability for it (and thus its degree of sinfulness) is very often lessened or completely removed by external factors such as extreme fear, duress, or mental instability as stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
I don’t think those inaccuracies are a damning flaw, and they certainly detract neither from the drama nor the compelling and consistent characterization which drives the show. It doesn’t even bother me that the characters struggle with those teachings; many Catholics do as well. However, I think one empathetic character who accepts all the Church’s teachings would make a more complete picture of Catholicism in a show centered around life in a seminary.
Recaps of past episodes:
When Pope St. John XXIII was asked how many people work in the Vatican, he famously responded, “About half.” In his recap of episode three, Ken mentioned that the investigation of the Capuchin seminary spurred by a vendetta between Monsignor Roman and Father Fromenger struck him as potentially unbelievable. The most unbelievable aspect is the speed at which it progresses. While the Vatican probably would look into any complaint brought forward on both sides, the speed at which it would would be reminiscent of the Ents in The Lord of the Rings.
The fourth episode of season one of The Churchmen has a few other similar inaccuracies in its depiction of the Catholic faith. Most of those relate to the use of Catholic terminology. My first thought after this episode was that I wish I spoke French. After a misuse of the word “beatification” in the previous episode and this episode containing a scene which confuses “Eucharist” with “consecration,” I am wondering whether the very small theological slips are a writing problem or a translation problem in the subtitles.
A Christmas gathering at which “Silent Night” is sung makes me think it is a writing problem. While the lyrics of “Silent Night” which The Churchmen provides via subtitles are substantially different than the English ones (as well as the original German lyrics), those lyrics are an accurate translation of how the French version of the famous carol goes:
Douce nuit, sainte nuit!
Dans les cieux! L’astre luit.
Le mystère annoncé s’accomplit
Cet enfant sur la paille endormi,
C’est l’amour infini!
C’est l’amour infini!
The last two lines translate: “this is infinite love,” which is what appeared on the show. Running the rest through Google translate, the result mostly matches the lyrics which the show provided.
The confusion between “Eucharist” and “consecration” comes right before that Christmas gathering. The five seminarians are spending Christmas with Father Galzun, a depressed alcoholic priest who has decided his parish hates him, and as revenge he won’t celebrate Christmas Mass. (The show seems to be unaware the fact that if a priest actually did that, as soon as his local bishop heard, the repercussion would be swift and severe.) As a result, the optimistic Yann insists that the people should have some celebration for Christmas, and he says that as seminarians they can do everything (readings, hymns, and prayers) except the Eucharist. Actually, the seminarians can distribute the Eucharist to the congregation from whatever previously consecrated hosts are in the tabernacle; since they are not priests, they cannot consecrate more hosts into the body of Christ. It did not seem to me the show knew the difference.
Despite subtle inaccuracies like that, I still think The Churchmen remains well above average both as a drama and in its depiction of Catholicism. All the seminarians are believable characters, and I appreciate the way each episode focuses on different ones. The different interpretations that characters bring to their shared Catholic faith is believable, and it is remarkable that despite those differences, the show remains villain-less. Cardinal Roman is the closest any character comes to being a villain, but he is barely in this episode, and even so there are subtle hints that he may be reconsidering his vendetta with Fr. Fromenger.
The conflict between Roman and Fromenger is developed through the perpetually anxious Father Bosco, who lies to Fromenger that he needs to spend time with his family as a pretense for going to Rome and begging Monsignor Gandz not to remove Fromenger. The results of the investigation from the past two episodes are less damning then one might expect; the worst thing is that the accounting is sloppy. However, a new twist reveals that Fromenger has been fixing his accounts with the help of a loan shark, so there will be more money for maintaining the seminary.
Between Fromenger’s fraud; Bosco’s lies, manipulation, recurring contempt, and self-induced anxiety; and Fr. Galzun’s appalling shirking of his duties; this episode shows us three priests with significant moral failings, some of which could potentially be grounds for laicization. It seems that each of the seminarians will also be tested in ways that question whether they should continue in the seminary or not.
Yann remains a perpetual optimist. He is tested more in this episode than he has been, but an admission from a village woman that everyone needs priests gives him renewed energy. In my review of episode 2, I said Raph and Claire might have an affair. While Raph is haunted by dreams of committing adultery, nothing comes of it, except an email at the episode’s end from Raph to Claire saying he is going to remain faithful to the path he chose. In light of the recent scandals which have plagued the Church, Emmanuel’s revelation from episode 3 is perhaps dealt with naively, but the show indicates that he has repented. It will be interesting to see if anything else comes from that.
The most interesting and regrettably most shallowly handled conflict is the one that plagues Guillaume. However, since Guillaume’s decision happens within the last ten minutes of the episode, I suppose it is likely that the consequences will be handled in future episodes. His teenage sister Odile decides to commit a gravely sinful act, and after some weak protestations from Guillaume, he decides to help her, even as he is overwhelmed by guilt. Whether his actions are an affirmation of his sister’s decision, or simply being present to protect her is something that could have been explored more, and this is another conflict I am curious to see how the show handles.
When Ken asked me to participate with him in coverage of The Churchmen, (his review of episode 1 here) a French drama about five first year seminarians, I was instantly intrigued, because like Ken, I am usually disappointed in American television’s handling of religious themed drama, but find foreign handling of religious themes to be more rewarding and more realistic.
After watching the second episode of The Churchmen, my initial opinion based on the first episode seems confirmed. There are a few too many characters for a one hour show; all the characters are compelling, and I’d like to spend more time with all of them; all the characters are consistent and believable; and while quite dramatic at times, all of the drama comes across as natural and not unbelievably heightened.
The second episode opens with a flashback recap of the first, and then it continues by introducing a new character and conflict. Christian, a senior seminarian briefly seen in the first episode — he led the party which upset Yann —is volunteering at a charity shelter in Paris for prostitutes with Emmanuel, the freshman who has a history of mental illness. On Emmanuel’s first night, a prostitute named Clemence violently attacks Christian and wrests the keys to the building from him, insisting that she is going to leave. The incident so upsets Christian that he repeatedly plays the encounter in his mind, and he even suffers a crisis of faith.
That crisis leads to him committing an unthinkable act of vandalism, for which the newcomer Jose, who has recently been released from prison, is naturally blamed by the students. Father Fromenger is convinced that Jose is innocent and lectures the student body for their animosity toward whomever committed the act, saying that the perpetrator needs prayers and compassion, not condemnation. However, when his refusal to deal with the incident leads to Jose becoming a scapegoat, he recognizes that he has been blinded by the pride he places in the seminary and the students. I thought blaming Jose was too predictable an outcome, but I did appreciate where the show went with it.
The conflict between Father Fromenger and Cardinal Roman, which appears to be the overarching conflict for the season, takes a back seat for this episode until the last fifteen minutes. Once Fromenger recognizes his pride, he apologizes for the argument between the cardinal and himself from the first episode, but by that point the cardinal, with the help of another cardinal in Rome, has already launched an investigation into the Capuchin seminary to force Fromenger into an early retirement. The episodes concludes with a cliffhanger as the officials from the Vatican arrive at the seminary. Again, I found that outcome to be a predictable ending, but it was effective at making me look forward to the next episode.
Meanwhile, the backgrounds of the five freshmen are all further explored. Raph comes from a very, very wealthy family, and his father is not pleased that Raph is leaving the family business to become a priest. At an awkward party scene, Raph’s father makes Raph’s brother the chief share holder, forcing Raph to renounce all his shares. Claire, an old friend of Raph’s, seeks him out afterward to offer her sympathy, and if this were an American show, I’d feel confident in saying the two of them will have an affair — Claire, by the way, is married to another old friend of Raph’s. I hope The Churchmen finds a more interesting direction to go.
Guillaume continues to lecture his mother for her frequent drinking and licentious lifestyle, but when he realizes she’s becoming depressed, he relents and tells her to go to India with her boyfriend, which is what she badly wants. Yann continues to be a sunny optimist who is almost in denial of how terrible the world can be, and I predict it will only be a matter of time before he suffers a crisis of faith similar to Christian.
For all the various subplots, the show managed to tie them together nicely, especially by connecting the two main conflicts of this episode at the end. Despite a few small complaints, The Churchmen has, so far, been compelling religious themed drama.
The animation for The Prophet was gorgeous, even if the philosophical themes were too generic.
“The Devil…the proud spirit, cannot endure to be mocked.” — St. Thomas More
In a nutshell, that is why laughter is one of the most effective weapons against a totalitarian regime that murdered over six million people. And it’s something that Mel Brooks understands and brilliantly utilizes in The Producers.
I always assumed that was obvious, but apparently it’s not. Earlier this week, Jeffrey Imm launched a campaign to shut down a Maryland production of Mel Brooks’ musical The Producers on the grounds that it normalized the Nazis and whitewashed their crimes.
Resolved: Jeffrey Imm is a moron, and so is anyone who wants to sanitize the power out of comedy.
For anyone not familiar with The Producers, it’s about two corrupt Broadway producers who scheme to raise one million dollars for a one hundred thousand dollar flop that closes its opening night, and then embezzle the remaining funds. In order to ensure that the play closes immediately after its first performance, they select Springtime for Hitler, a love letter to the titular dictator.
As I wrote in my review of The Producers:
[D]eclaring The Producers offensive misses the point of the unflattering mockery of everything and everyone in the film. The jokes take for granted that the behavior of all the characters is deeply unethical, and then it exaggerates that behavior to expose how stupid, shallow, and destructive such sinful behavior is. That is one of the best types of comedy.
Of all the subjects lampooned in The Producers, none is more evil than Hitler and the Nazis, and consequently the Third Reich is made fun of more outrageously than anything else in both the movie and the play. The big number of the show within the show, Springtime for Hitler takes for granted that Hitler was a terrible person; if he wasn’t the song would only be a few chuckles funny, not outrageously laugh out loud funny as it is.
However, Simcha raises another point:
Excuse me while I get a bit emotional about this, but this is why Mel Brooks is so great: he’s an optimist, and his exuberantly ridiculous jokes catch you up in his love of life, dick jokes and all. The jokes that “make sense” aren’t what make the non sequiturs and the fart jokes forgivable; they’re all part of the same sensibility.
Life is funny. Even when it’s awful (what with racism, and Nazis, and murder, and stuff like that), it’s kind of funny. Especially when it’s awful. Especially when you’re suffering.
This is something all the best comedians understand. I am aware Woody Allen is a controversial figure, but in his best movies, he finds what is funny amidst a world of imperfections and short comings. Simcha’s piece instantly reminded me of Hannah and Her Sisters, in which Allen plays a hypochondriac struggling with depression. The first time he contemplates suicide, he’s stopped by the very funny realization he’d have to commit mass murder to make sure everyone affected by his death would also die. After his second and more serious suicide contemplation, his saving moment of light comes from attending a screening of Duck Soup and realizing that laughter and beauty do permeate the world. By the way, Duck Soup is an absurd mockery of fascism in which characters gleefully celebrate going to war with song and dance numbers, punch foreign embassies based on misunderstandings, and make openly sexist remarks. The film had clear enough parallels to Mussolini that it was banned in Italy when it was first released, much to Groucho’s delight.
Another brilliant example is The Big Lebowski. The film is essentially a series of preposterous non sequiturs as two bumbling idiots needlessly complicate their lives. The humor is so great, because regardless of how terribly the characters are behaving or how bad their luck is, the film manages to highlight something thoroughly outrageous. Has your best friend smashed the living daylights out of a stranger’s $40,000 convertible due to a misunderstanding while screaming obscenities at a teenager? And has the stranger then retaliated by smashing the living daylights out of your car? Then how bad has your week really been?
A recent comedy which puts laughing at the devil into startling relief is Four Lions, about four would be jihadists who are so incompetent that they continually thwart their own attempts to carry out a terrorist bombing. In light of recent terrorist attacks, it’s not hard to imagine the film receiving backlash, but the humor takes all power away from terrorists by portraying them as fools who despise Western technology while owning every latest gadget, think placing one’s hands over one’s beard constitutes a sufficient disguise, and think the height of commitment is driving one’s car straight into a brick wall. In no way does Four Lions belittle the victims of actual terrorist attacks; on the contrary, death is treated with respect and sorrow. Instead, the film highlights the absurd illogical standards of the terrorists and serves as a reminder that evil does not have the last laugh.
And of course, Mel Brooks returned to satirizing the worst of human behavior with Blazing Saddles, a spoof of westerns that highlights the racism and slavery which prevailed through the old west. The author of the piece for PJ Media said, “God forbid this Imm see Blazing Saddles.” The obvious reason being that Brooks mocks racism (and sexism) in the same way he mocks Nazism: by showing that type of behavior to be as stupid and outrageous as possible, or portraying the work of the devil, and the devil himself, as idiotic.
What does Mel Brooks achieve with his best work? As Simcha stated:
Suddenly I knew what kind of show I was in. It was a comedy, and I was going to make it out of that dark room.
So go ahead, laugh at The Producers and Blazing Saddles and The Big Lebowski. God made the world and He saw that it was good. (Gen. 1:31) Regardless of how ugly we make it at times, there is always some aspect in which we can see the foolishness and absurdity of human depravity. We should never laugh to normalize the ugliness itself, but the recognition of how we have fallen short is like looking at the world distorted through a funhouse mirror. We can choose to despair or we can choose to see hope and humor by recognizing mankind’s shortcomings, either giving our enemies power over us or laughing at them. For my part, I chose laughter.