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REVIEW: Agape (2017) December 12, 2017

Posted by Dragan Antulov in Film Reviews.
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A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2017

There are countries where Catholic Church has huge influence on almost every aspect of life, there are countries where that influence is really huge, and there is Croatia. In 1990s this reflected in Antonia Bird’s Priest being strangely absent from Croatian cinemas, video stores or television. Times are, however, changing, although it has less to do with Croatia itself and more to do with global trends, namely the years of widely reported sex abuse scandals that Hollywood couldn’t afford to ignore any more, paving the way for other cinema industries to follow its example. Croatian filmmakers began to deal with the issue, with 2013 dark comedy The Priest’s Children using it as a part of its subplot. Four years later, sex abuse in Catholic Church is the main subject of Agape, drama directed by Branko Schmidt.

Protagonist of the film, played by Goran Bogdan, is Miran, priest who runs a parish in impoverished blue-collar suburb of Zagreb. From the outside he appears to be a good priest and a good man; he takes genuine interest in well-being of his parishioners, teaches catechism in local high school with great deal of understanding for his teenage pupils and tries his best to take care of boys from local orphanage. He also appears “hip” by spending his free time working in gym, riding motorbike and playing video games, the latter often in company of orphanage boys he regularly invites to his house. Among them is young Goran (played by Denis Murić) who appears to be very fond of Miran. Everything changes with an arrival of Gabrijel (played by Pavle Čemerikić), physically attractive boy who brings more than palpable attention from the priest, but fails to respond in kind. Jealousy, alcohol abuse, homophobia and conformism produce turn of events that would shatter Miran’s life.

In 1990s Branko Schmidt, due to his conformist “patriotic” films, was perceived as a filmmaker typical for everything wrong with Croatian cinema. With Agape he continues transformation into one of the best and most interesting Croatian filmmakers, a process that started with 2009 Metastases and continued with 2012 Vegetarian Cannibal. Just like in those two films, written by novelist Ivo Balenović, he gives uncompromisingly bleak portrayal of Croatian society’s dark underbelly and does so with a great skill. The script, which apparently took some time to be finished, is relatively simple and this reflects in short running time of 77 minutes. Everything in the film looks natural, even the acting – one of the blackest spots of Croatian cinema – is good. Goran Bogdan, known to international audience for appearing in one season of Fargo, plays his role very well. He is helped by young colleagues from Serbia – Čemerikić (with whom he appeared in The Last Panthers miniseries) and Murić. Another interesting casting choice is for the role of Miran’s wealthy and bigoted parishioner who complains about his daughter dating dark-skinned Muslim; he is played by Bosnian Muslim actor Emir Hadžihafizbegović.

Schmidt’s direction in this film is simple, but subtle. Although it deals with sex abuse, there isn’t any explicit sexual content in the film. Agape very slowly but convincingly builds the case that the priest has some disturbing urges towards the boys in his care, but leaves much of interpretation of his actions and motives to the audience.Violence is, on the other hand, quite graphic (and it caused certain controversy by being used in the pre-release marketing). Schmidt puts authentic Zagreb locations to good use, and that even includes somewhat “artsy” scene at the railway junction where two characters symbolically part ways. There are some interesting details that point to Schimdt’s sources of inspiration – the most obvious is Gabrijel looking like Tadzio in Visconti’s Death in Venice. Schmidt’s film also doesn’t shy away from putting Church sex abuse into the broader context of Croatian social pathology, which includes scenes that portray rampant and sometimes violent bigotry (more explicit among younger than older generations of Croatians) and widespread corruption, which includes Church officials involved in shady real estate deals and more than willing to deal with sex abuse allegations by burying them under the carpet. Some of the elements in the film, however, don’t work; subplot dealing with Miran’s long suffering older sister (played by Darija Lorenci) seems unfinished. The ending of Agape is open and it would look natural, but is few minutes overlong. Despite these minor flaws, Agape deserves praise, not only for the authors’ bravery in dealing with difficult and unpleasant subject, but also because it dealt with it with great skill.

RATING: 8/10

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