Asking the Tough Questions: SCENES FROM AN EMPTY CHURCH

Coming off of its recent world premiere at Chattanooga Film Festival, MPI’s Scenes From an Empty Church will arrive on VOD and in theaters July 2nd.

The Covid-19 pandemic has unquestionably had a massive impact on the film industry, shutting down productions, bankrupting theaters, and perhaps irreversibly hastening the adoption of streaming services and VOD over the traditional communal, theatrical viewing experience.

What largely remains to be seen is the narrative and creative impact it will have going forward. Will interrupted film productions and TV series set in a fictional version of our present acknowledge the hiatus, or the pandemic itself? What kind of stories will emerge as we return to normalcy? What will the “new normal” even look like? For many, watching movies has been a form of escapism, especially in lockdown. Will audiences want to watch, much less embrace, “pandemic movies”?

Set in New York City, one of the most dangerous and heavily quarantined metropolitan zones impacted by the outbreak, Scenes From an Empty Church uses the pandemic as a raw backdrop for a story exploring theology, spiritual connection, and what it means to be human.

The film is directed by NYC filmmaker Onur Tukel, who cowote with Andrew Shemin. It is, so far as I’ve seen, the greatest meditative piece of art to directly emerge out of the pandemic.

The film centers on two depressed Catholic priests dwelling in the silent emptiness of their locked-down church. Like everyone, they’re feeling the anxiety of the situation, scared and disconnected. Their doors remain closed, their ministry halted and their mission uncertain. An unexpected visit from his old friend Paul (Max Casella) reignites Father Andrew (Kevin Corrigan)’s hunger for connection, and he convinces apathetic Father James (Thomas Jay Ryan) to begin to slowly allow the church to resume its work – albeit in a very limited fashion.

Though he’s not a Christian, Paul also hangs around. He’s on a spiritual search, and enjoying the company of the priests and their deep, lively conversations.

As parishioners return for prayers and confessions, the Fathers are reinvigorated in their mission, but also confronted with deep questions about their faith as they encounter different people with varied experiences and backgrounds. The film isn’t shy about asking these difficult questions, as characters grapple and debate in earnest over some of the biggest quandaries and criticisms of Christianity and Catholicism. Would modern day Christians recognize and believe in Jesus if we encountered him performing miracles today, or write him off as a charlatan? Is a priest’s ministry less valid because he set out on that path for the wrong reasons? Or if he has homosexual urges? Is a child molester who has accepted Christ more deserving of God’s mercy than an atheist who leads a righteous life?

One of the film’s saddest critiques is the response of the priests when a stranger comes into the church eager to be saved and baptized. Rather than being equipped with the gospel and ready to engage his plea, they stammer about how busy they are and hide behind protocol, more annoyed by his interruption than joyous at the spiritual rebirth of a new believer.

Another great conversation, and perhaps the most “real” in the film, finds Father Andrew, who is Jewish, getting back in touch with this estranged dad (Paul Reiser): the cause of their rift was his conversion to Catholicism. In still another discussion, Andrew explains how believing in Christ isn’t antithetical to his Jewish roots, but complementary: he embraces Jesus as the very fulfillment the Old Testament.

These conversations and engagements are the heart of the story, which clearly portray the priests as fallible, human beings trying and sometimes failing to honor God. There’s not really any deeper plot; the film is more interested in how we engage and connect. It’s sometimes sad, sometimes hilarious, always thoughtful, and ultimately hopeful. The big questions are left unanswered, leaving them for the audience to consider.

This isn’t exactly Sunday School material – there’s a smattering of profanity, mostly by priests, and a small bit of sexuality and nudity – but the film is an earnest and incredibly thoughtful exploration of both faith and the human experience. Highly recommended viewing.

Scenes From an Empty Church will arrive on VOD and in theaters July 2nd, with a DVD planned to follow in August.

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