Cinema has long maintained a contentious relationship with the Catholic Church. In recent decades, Rome-friendly pictures like The Song of Bernadette appear to be far outnumbered by controversial titles like Priest or The Magdalene Sisters; by now, Bad Education‘s pedophile priest subplot feels barely taboo. A slim genealogy of critiques, from Godard’s Hail Mary to Kevin Smith’s Dogma, engage in a conflict as old as the church itself: the struggle to understand individual spiritual experience within an institution built around millennia-old tradition. Such is the implicit tension brewing beneath the unnervingly calm surface of Jesus, You Know, Ulrich Seidl’s complex and deeply moving documentary of Catholics at prayer, who remarkably speak to the camera as they do to God, revealing sorrowful lives filled with family strife, failed love, neurotic insecurities, and fears of death.
Catholic News reportedly refused to run ads for Seidl’s documentary; one suspects that Jesus, You Know was judged sinful by association, since this minimalist work contains none of the outward perversion found in Seidl’s ballad of sexual degradation, Dog Days, or his look at obsessed petophiles, Animal Love: The only images of bodily mortification found in this latest work are provided by conventional paintings and sculptures of Christ. But the Catholics documented nonetheless express plenty of emotional anguish. A middle-aged woman tells God how her Muslim husband has become convinced that his illness is a form of divine punishment for marrying outside his faith. She also worries about her family watching too many talk shows: “Problems don’t get discussed anymore,” she says, “just watched on TV.” Another relates fantasies about killing her spouse with poison, and later prays that she herself die a “good death,” free of pain. A teenager complains that his parents mock him for going to Mass every day; he uncomfortably confesses to becoming turned on by television babes and the erotic content of Bible stories. “I can’t control my body,” he tells Christ.
Seidl shoots each person alone inside soaring medieval or modernist cathedrals, bereft of fellow parishioners and clergy. And indeed, Catholic churches are emptier than ever—in Europe more drastically so than in America. Seidl has expressed the goal of depicting “the average believer,” but such a creature today rarely steps within spitting distance of a Eucharist, short of weddings, christenings, and the odd first Communion. The uncommonly obsessed genuflectors showcased in Jesus, You Know come off as desperate for a more fulfilling human connection—something, perhaps, which better approximates their idealized relationship with God, that ever ready listener, who is as silently supportive as a divine lapdog, and cheaper than therapy. “Nobody knows my sorrows like you,” one woman prays. For each, the ritual of prayer provides immediate escape more easily than redemption.
While Seidl documents churchgoers, the Irish-set Conspiracy of Silence takes on a lurid, pat sociology of the clergy. A canned melodrama about a local reporter investigating a priest’s suicide, Conspiracy portrays the church as quick to suppress inner scandals through iron-fisted authoritarianism and shadowy, Mafia-like threats. The hammered-home message here is that the vow of celibacy has hobbled the church’s future, and led to the disavowal of priests with AIDS. But due to Conspiracy‘s TV-movie simplicity, it’s unclear whether this is an actual issue, or just something spicy to be cooked up in the potboiler.