Hearing that a film is based on an existential novel that’s over 100 years old, you should expect some level of confusion and indeed controversy. That’s what The Man Who Was Thursday delivers: it’s a film that examines themes of religion, anarchy, faith, dictatorships and metaphysical consequence and never allows its audience to get too comfortable with what is really going on. It’s a challenging piece and no doubt some of the elements will be controversial, but there’s still something interesting here that’s worth trying to crack open.
The film finds Father Smith (Francois Arnaud), a young priest from a rough background, suffering a crisis of faith which is not helped by the arrival of a mysterious woman who not only has committed every sin under the sun, but seems to enjoy being a sinner. Smith finds himself under temptation from the woman but despite his best efforts he succumbs to her, only to be betrayed – leading to a violent outburst in an effort to save himself.
Smith is then sent to a reform institute in order to find his faith again. Instead, he’s met by Charlie (Jordi Molla), an old friend and member of Vatican Intelligence who is leading a case to find an anarchist group which seems to have ties to the Institute. With Smith’s background and sudden arrival, he makes the perfect fit for an undercover agent to find their mysterious leader, known only as Sunday. Smith meets the group and is inducted into them, given the moniker Thursday and introduced to Saturday (Ana Ularu), the right-hand woman of Sunday. Not long afterwards though, Smith starts having waking nightmares that transport his mind back to 1942,where he finds himself part of a resistance group trying to kill Mussolini, while at the same time back in the present he finds himself part of a resistance group trying to kill God.
There is an interesting thriller here involving the anarchist group and their mission to destroy the system and introduce true freedom- not to induct their own rules but free the world from the laws of Gods and Men. Its basis in religion allows for the film to embrace elements of Christianity while challenging others parts of it as well.
The time-travel is the most confusing component and one that might turn some people off, because it’s never stated what its full purpose is in context. Thematically, though, it does make sense; in 1942 Mussolini is viewed as a dictator who has arguably perverted religion for his own benefit, and in the present, God is viewed in much the same way. It’s less that Mussolini is God and more that God is Mussolini; a dictator holding humanity under his thumb who needs to be destroyed in order to grow as a species. The parallels are there but it’s unclear as to how the film brings them together.
While admittedly the film could’ve looked more into the anarchy group and how the individual members work together – especially once the film starts looking into who really works for who – the central trio of Smith, Charlie and Saturday make for an engaging narrative with both Charlie and Saturday hiding their true intentions. The mystery surrounding them both makes it difficult to tell whether they’re helping and hindering Smith, Charlie toes the line between hero and villain and clearly know more than he’s letting on while Saturday is portrayed as a more clear-cut villain but her overall place in Smith’s story is contested during her rare moments of tenderness.
Smith is an interesting character; there are hints towards a tough childhood that led him towards the priesthood by finding God, only now he’s starting to wonder if God’s turned his back on him. He makes for a very human character – he has faith but his own temptations are turning him further away from that and it’s making for a very conflicted personality; he’s religious but still accessible to those who are not. The arrival of Charlie and Saturday in his life seem to push him further down the rabbit hole, combined with the confusing timelines, and suddenly Smith is questioning everything around him. At times Smith does feel a little too much like an audience substitute, trying to figure out what’s going on around him. But Arnaud brings it back around when he’s able to inject some personality into the situation, especially towards the third act once things start becoming clearer.
The film is the feature debut of director Balazs Juszt, and for a first-timer he’s picked a heavy film to start off with. But he does pull it off for the most part. This isn’t strange like a David Lynch fil+m; it’s straightforward for the most part until the metaphysical elements start coming into play with regards to the parallels between Mussolini and God. It is strange, but in a more abstract way than the rest of the film, as though it’s trying to reveal a message but doesn’t want to outright tell the audience what that is- to mixed results.
At the Edinburgh premiere, Juszt appeared before the start of the film and described it as a nightmare, saying that a dream is when you’re asleep but when that dream follows you when you’re awake, then it becomes a nightmare. That proves rather apt for the nature of this film, because even during the time-travel portions, Smith is clearly awake through it all, going through the motions in both the past and the present but under different circumstances. There’s an undercurrent of unease that flows through the darkened streets of Rome; with fetish clubs, immolation, suicide and murder all playing a part in Smith’s downfall, this is clearly an ugly world and the anarchists are bringing it to the forefront. But it doesn’t stop there; people repeat phrases said by others they have no connection with, events in the past are replicated by the future, and it all bleeds together to create a film that goes out of its way to confuse and unnerve its audience.
The point of The Man Who Was Thursday is to invite discussion; this is just how I’ve interoperated the movie, but with its focus on those themes of religion, anarchy, dictators and the metaphysical there are sure to be others who view it differently. It’s not perfect, with some rough edges where the film tries to tie itself all together, and even by normal film standards it feel like it’s missing some important character work in regards to the anarchists. But it’s still an interesting and more than likely controversial film that openly challenges its audience in a way that makes the experience worth having.
3 and a half hairpieces out of 5