A really amazing Evald Schorm film that was released after the Prague Spring, and as far as I can tell, one of the last Czech films that really fits the true “New Wave” moniker (alongside other late period films Valerie and Her Week of Wonders and The Cremator), The End of a Priest reminds me a bit of Capricious Summer, and its sidelong glance at religion reminds of, who else, Luis Buñuel. I think everything reminds me of Buñuel lately for some reason. But this is a film that would pair so well with Death in the Garden.
A sexton at a small church (Vlastimil Brodský) arrives in a village badly in need of a priest. He pretends to be one, much to the chagrin of the local teacher and theater director (Jan Libícek). These central performances are amazing, as are those of the other villagers. Jana Brejchová (once married to Miloš Forman) gives a really great turn as Majka, a Mary Magdalene figure but with more comedy and less tragedy.
That sidelong glance I mentioned earlier: there are so many religious metaphors in The End of a Priest, but it’s not like Christianity is only seen in a ridiculous, mocking light. People are comforted; the sexton isn’t necessarily a bad person, he’s just wayward and lacking something in life. The real finger wagging here is reserved for a representation of the state: three men in black trench coats and fedoras who charge in comically towards the end to arrest the wrong man in front of a congregation (great reaction shot here)-
-leading to something like a crucifixion scene with “Jesus” in the middle and two other criminals, one repentant, one not, on either side of him:
These trench coat men (I suppose State Security) are in the film multiple times. They’re suspicious of religion and quick to arrest anyone. They’re at once comic relief and terrifying.
But there’s plenty of comedy in The End of a Priest. There’s the swearing grandmother, a near-resurrection (Schorm and co-writer Josef Skvorecký are really smart to make a lot of “almosts” so as to avoid being on-the-nose: there’s almost a resurrection…but then it’s quickly determined that that’s not what happened; there’s almost a bishop arrested…but then that’s quickly sorted out), and an amazing scene with a new fire truck.
This last sequence feels straight out of Buster Keaton (to whom I think this film is also indebted). We start with a lot of pomp and circumstance as the fire truck drives into the square and the teacher gives an arrogant speech on its importance:
Of course, immediately there’s a chance to prove its usefulness-
-but the village drunk falls on the hose, stopping the flow of water:
What else is there to do but pray?
Prayers notwithstanding, the drunk stands, the water returns, and instead of the teacher and his truck receiving praise, it’s the priest who is lauded:
It’s a really clever sequence that brings everyone together, that pits logic directly versus religion, and that has an outcome that isn’t really a victory for either (though there is the appearance of victory for one). The shot selection here is so good. Schorm builds up how much effort has gone into the event, which makes the failure of the hose even more embarrassing. Crosscutting the drunk, the hose, and the priest directly puts them all in competition. It’s not just that it’s logic against religion, it’s that the third factor that “controls” both of those, is totally incoherent and abides by no rules (I wonder if there’s a thesis here).
There’s plenty more religious imagery throughout the film. There’s a wedding party where, instead of turning the water into wine, the “priest” drinks too much of it; there’s an apostle figure; a sequence where the “devil” tempts “Jesus” in the desert; etc. But while all of these make the metaphor real and obvious, they all totally function in the story and never take The End of a Priest away from its narrative pursuits.