Film - EIFF: The Man Who Was Thursday

Susan Omand has an existential crisis watching The Man Who Was Thursday, which premiered at Edinburgh Film Festival this week...

Following a disgraceful turn at his local parish, Father Smith is called to Rome for spiritual rehabilitation. Upon his arrival, Charles, the man who introduced him to the faith, reveals the real reason Smith was brought to Rome - to go underground and ascertain the mysterious leader of an anarchist group of renegades. Smith accepts this mission and ultimately unearths the true leader of the group and redeems himself but not before experiencing a litany of mind-altering twists and turns.

The best way to approach this film, like anything, is with no pre-conceptions. I’d heard of the G K Chesterton novel, which inspired the film and gave it its name, but never read it and I knew Francois Arnaud’s acting through his recurring character in the wonderful Blindspot but, really, that was it. So I didn’t know what to expect.

And I’m still not really sure what I got but bloody hell it was good.

The official overview for the festival describes The Man Who Was Thursday as “a psychological and supernatural thriller” but that really doesn’t do it justice, it was so much more than that. It’s certainly psychological as it messes with your head from the start. A film full of contradictions. It’s a beautiful film; exciting, sexy, dangerous, cool. Then suddenly bewildering; shocking, disorientating, gory, surreal. And then back. It swaps from being a strongly character led film to one where the plot is all. And then back. The story is simple and linear but then it’s not as the plot continually twists in upon itself until you’re not sure what reality is for the main character any more, if any of it ever was. Or maybe all of it was real, who can say?

Is it supernatural? Not in a “ghosts, vampires and werewolves” way, no, but I guess it depends on how you define religion because, even if you set aside the surface storyline and the clever spin on the plot, biblical metaphor was everywhere throughout the film. From the obvious temptress in the confessional to the stage act in the fetish club the iconography was artfully placed. But I think the religious thread and the questioning of faith runs even deeper than that throughout the film if you care to infer it, such was the quality of the writing and direction. From subtle repetition of phrases to clever parallel plotlines you always get the feeling there is more to this than meets the initial eye. The characters too were also richly developed, multi-faceted and very believable in their varying levels of sanity/fervour for the cause. I found Jack the barman for some reason resonated deeply for me as the all seeing blind man. Nothing in the film was superfluous and every word, every action throughout the film had meaning and importance. I must also mention the costuming, set design and cinematography here because there are touches and details that add so much to the richness of the film that are not immediately apparent if you’re not looking for them. I think it will take several watches to catch everything.

I am astonished that this is a debut feature for the writer/director Balazs Juszt, as this is a highly accomplished film that becomes more than the sum of its parts long after the end credits run. The complexity of the many twists never dropped enough into confusion that you got lost but neither were all the dots joined up for you. Several things, especially regarding character relationships and backstories just “were”, they were never explained, and it was easy to accept them as such. And it is this level of assumption and acceptance that made the incredibly subtle misdirection work so well. Much like religion, I guess.

Image - Flair PR
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