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Film Review: "Exemplum"

screen shot of "Exemplum" publicity poster, (c) Paul Roland

There's a lot of talk going around lately about how disappointing mainstream film offerings can be, and how the low-budget, independent alternatives can also be disappointing, albeit in a host of entirely different ways. Thus, prior to watching the film “Exemplum”, I was a bit skeptical, since some of the high-profile, well-funded indie projects I've seen recently, many with religious or political overtones, have been something of a mixed bag.

I need not have worried.

I'll mention the prduction values first: Roland and team do an impressive job squeezing plenty of mystery and drama out of their small budget. Like any talented creator working with limited but tried-and-true tools, excellent use is made of the typical Art House camera angles, editing and an atmospheric, brooding soundtrack. Of course, black and white imagery is in itself a classic storytelling device, as it helps establish the mood, and the sense of foreboding that underscores the morality-play nature of the tale.

And this is a morality tale, depicting the story of Fr. Colin Jacobi. Colin is a very intense, driven young priest, based in California, who is on the verge of becoming an internet sensation. With his talents for art and writing, he is clearly more interested in clicks on his social media posts than in clicks on his rosary beads. His signature YouTube channel showcases his unique medieval morality tales; each an “exemplum” of fictional characters dealing with particular vices, similar to Chaucer's tales. His popularity as a content creator and as a confessor soon sky-rockets, to the point where he's invited to produce a complete catechesis program for the Archdiocese of New York.

No spoilers, but we learn pretty early on that Fr. Colin's inspiration for these charming little fables comes from his habit of recording penitents in the confessional--which of course is a massive violation of Church law. That he is willing to do this is a huge tell as to how wrapped up he is in his own project, while telling himself that he's justified, that he's doing God's work. The film's tagline is “Hate the sinner. Love the sin”, and it's just that perverted, arrogant mindset that helps corrupt Colin as he harvests material from his flock's foibles and sufferings.

When the New York deal falls through and Fr. Colin's meteoric rise is halted by his own bishop's interference, Colin's pastor, Fr. Liam, becomes the voice of reason and compassion. He urges Colin to follow the path of humility and obedience, and make his own spiritual health a priority again.

Instead, Colin feels betrayed by his superiors and succumbs to pride, disobedience and wrath. He reaches out to one of his parishioners—Louie, an influential restauranteur who has the bishop's ear---for help. Since Louie is in the midst of an acrimonious divorce, and since Colin has access to some important things revealed in the confessional, it's at this point where the story transitions smoothly from a psychological study to a crime thriller. The young priest becomes ever more more desperate to hang onto what he believes God owes him for the sacrifices he has made in his vocation. As he finds more justifications for his terrible actions, and spirals further downward, he throws more blame on God.

One of the things I appreciated about “Exemplum” is how well-written it is. It's free of political points or virtue-signaling; any allusions to politics or current culture are completely organic to the story and underscore the bigger, universal points it makes about human nature, sin and grace. While it of course deals with specific religious themes, it does so in a way that appeals to an audience beyond the choir. The quality of the writing also carries the viewer over some of the less credible twists.

The performances by the entire cast are impressive. Roland does a solid job with the central character. With his growing intensity and arrogance, we see a man who had possibly tricked himself into thinking he had a vocation to the priesthood in the first place, and even as he looks down on others' sins, he seems to resent that he's missing out on the worldly success other people are enjoying in their lives.

Francis Cronin as Fr. Liam oozes genuine concern and charity as he witnesses his fellow priest's implosion. I was especially struck by Joseph Griffin's performance as Louie, an unlikable person caught in a web he unwittingly helped weave.

Prior to watching “Exemplum”, I had happened to watch Carol Reed's “The Third Man”, starring Joseph Cotten and OrsonWelles, with screenplay by Graham Greene. Thus, one of the best examples of classic, black and white film noir was fresh in my mind, and I have to say I was impressed with how well “Exemplum” compares. Additionally, I then viewed Alfred Hitchcock's “I Confess”, another famous thriller with the seal of the confessional as its central plot point. Frankly, I enjoyed “Exemplum” more. I found the writing and the plot tighter, the pacing faster, the characters more realistic.

Overall, Paul Roland has done an amazing job and I urge folks to check it out. It's exciting to see the project gain momentum and visibility through word of mouth from influential people and average viewers alike---anyone who enjoys the work of a talented storyteller should appreciate this entertaining and thought-provoking little film.

The film is very easy to access: it's available for FREE on YouTube and Tubi with a high-quality, ad-free stream available to rent on either Google Play or Vimeo on Demand or YouTube Movies. See trailer:

“Exemplum” is rated TV-MA for for some strong language and description/implication of sinful behavior.

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