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Catechism Cataclysm, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Halfway to being an absurdist classic; I'm just not sure which half."
3 stars

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2011: There are two distinct types of strange at play in "The Catechism Cataclysm" - a weird character in a somewhat conventional situation and parts that are just plain bizarre. Some in the audience aren't going to be down for the whole package, but there's enough of each sort of oddity to satisfy most anyone willing to pick the movie up of a shelf.

Father William Smoortser (Steve Little) is a Catholic priest, but not a very good one. His parables are more like bad jokes than biblical illustrations, and he spends a lot of time on the diocese's computer watching YouTube videos. His superior (Wally Dalton) suggests he take a few days off to reassess his relationship with God, which he opts to do by going on a canoe trip with Robbie Shoemaker (Robert Longstreet), the brother of his high school girlfriend. Robbie's music inspired William as a teen, but he's been a little less successful as a musician than William imagined. Still, they head out on that trip, only to get lost with a pair of Japanese girls calling themselves "Tom Sawyer" (Miki Ann Maddox) and "Huckleberry Finn" (Koko Lanham) and their guide "Jim" (Rico).

Steve Little's Father William is a difficult character, to put it one way. There is, perhaps, an interesting drama to be made about this guy or someone like him - a socially stunted outcast who finds himself drawn to the Church's unconditional acceptance, but not really bright enough or good enough with people to do the job despite the utter sincerity of his belief in God and desire to help. Little actually does an impressive job acting the part; we're given little exposition, but Little makes it possible to infer the guy's whole story. Similarly, Longstreet builds his working class opposite number just as solidly; he's the film's straight man, but one whose confusion is real and tempered with curiosity.

The potential trouble is that William can be truly, genuinely annoying. Writer/director Todd Rohal doesn't just make him a misfit, but a moron. His apparent unwillingness to assimilate what Robbie tells him often seems less funny than irritating, and the weird voice Little gives the character can grate. Comedy's a subjective thing, but Father Steve is the sort of character who may work best in small doses, and after he's introduced, he becomes a little one-note; though some of his interactions with Robbie are funny, the movie does start going into a circle for a while - the comedy doesn't quite escalate, and the characters don't make that bit of satisfying forward motion. It's just OK for a while. Even the stories William and Robbie tell that cut away from the main action have an unfinished feel to them, clever set-ups looking for great punchlines.

When that happens, jumping off the rails can be the best thing to happen to a movie, and that's what happens here. The last act offers one bit of strangeness after another, with the cross-wired Mark Twain references only the beginning. While Rohal doesn't make things totally random - there is a certain pattern to events, if not actual logic - there's an awful lot left unexplained, except (perhaps) in the lyrics to a song perfectly placed on the soundtrack toward the end of the movie (John Butler's "Hand of the Almighty"). Plunging into weird territory means the comedy comes less from "point at the well-meaning schmuck and laugh" than they did before.

Of course, some will find William's broad comedy the real draw and the bits with Tom, Huck, and Jim a too-strange nuisance. The way Rohal tells the story means you can't have one without the other, as it turns out, and you maybe shouldn't - the two types of absurdities wind up complementing each other. As an end result, "The Catechism Cataclysm" may not feel like a complete success to very many, but the parts that do work are usually worth the ones that don't... Whichever way that winds up being arranged for the individual viewer.

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originally posted: 05/08/11 15:44:52
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2011 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 South By Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2011 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Independent Film Festival Boston 2011 For more in the Independent Film Festival Boston 2011 series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the Fantasia International Film Festival 2011 series, click here.

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  DVD: 28-Feb-2012


  DVD: 28-Feb-2012

Directed by
  Todd Rohal

Written by
  Todd Rohal

  Steve Little
  Robert Longstreet
  Walter Dalton
  Miki Ann Maddox
  Koko Lanham

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