Saturday, December 13, 2008

Holland at MoMA: To Kill a Priest

The face of evil is usually all too prosaic. Such is the case in To Kill a Priest, the first of three fruitful collaborations (so far) between the Polish-born director Agnieszka Holland and American actor Ed Harris. Released in 1989, To Kill a Priest (trailer here) is also her most misunderstood film. It is indeed inspired by the assassination of the pro-Solidarity priest Jerzy Popieluszko, who really was kidnapped and murdered by members of the Polish Security Police with the winking approval of their superiors. However, the nature of Holland’s assassin, played by Harris, is often misinterpreted. Screening tomorrow as part of the MoMA’s Holland retrospective, it might be the film in her oeuvre most overdue for a critical re-examination.

Harris’s true-believing Captain Stefan leads the Fourth Division of the secret police charged with monitoring religious activity. His number one target is Father Alek, an earnest young Roman Catholic priest modeled on Popieluszko (and played by a stiffly miscast Christopher Lambert), who openly criticizes Communist oppression from the pulpit. Not taking kindly to such counter-revolutionary sedition, the Captain tries to trump up a criminal case against the Father. Failing that, he obtains tacit permission from his section Colonel to run a black bag operation to solve their problem once and for all.

Much is made of the secret policeman’s love for his family and heartfelt defense of socialist values, as if this ameliorates his guilt for killing Father Alek in cold blood. Yet, such thinking is deeply flawed. Theologically, evil is not considered the opposite of good, but rather its perversion. Harris’s character is evil for choosing ideology over humanity. It is an ideology that compels him to terrorize his own family, painting gallows and nooses on the door of his flat, while blaming neighbors sympathetic to Solidarity. He has deliberately poisoned his family with fear and paranoia, and murdered the innocent, rationalizing his crime as a means to insure: “that my son can grow up to be a good Communist.”

This might be Ed Harris’s best on-screen performance, capturing the nervous energy of a tightly wound, but all too ordinary monster. He is joined by a very talented cast, including Joss Ackland, Tim Roth, Joanne Whalley, Pete Postlethwaite, and David Suchet, many of whom were cast by Holland before there became well-known actors, proving her eye for prospective talent.

Priest is more deliberate than most political thrillers, but more action driven than typical arthouse fare. While the drab look of the film might have been true to the Communist reality, it gets to be a chore on the eyes. Still, Holland infuses many scenes with tremendous power, as when the confirmed atheist Captain teaches his Colonel how to cross himself. Arguably, the sum of Priest’s parts is greater than its whole, but that still offers much for viewers to chew on.

Like her mentor Andrzej Wajda, Holland was forced into a life of exile in the 1980’s. However, in recent years she has remained a world citizen of a filmmaker, directing American, French, and German productions. According to her Q&A with Harris on Wednesday night, her next project will be an HBO pilot about New Orleans musicians returning to the city. As for Harris, his next project will be a Peter Weir adaptation of The Long Walk, Polish Cavalry Officer Slavomir Rawicz’s memoir of his grueling escape from a Soviet Gulag, which would eventually make quite an interesting double feature with Priest. Holland’s first collaboration with the actor screens again this afternoon as her retrospective series continues at MoMA.