Written and directed by Lisandro Duque Naranjo, this Colombian film takes a satirical look at the place of the Catholic church in society, and the role it plays in everyday life. By examining to what degree that role is merely perfunctory, the film questions the relationship between the church, civil society, and the state.
The little town at the centre of this story is constructed as a microcosm reflecting society at large. Most people go to church merely because it is part of their weekly ritual. Some find it comforting, and some (mainly women) are actually very religious – albeit in a naive sort of way. Many people see the church merely as an institutional fixture in the town, with the concordat between the state and the Vatican allowing the church to fulfil official functions for the state, such as officially registering marriages and supplying identity papers via the baptismal register. (The story is set at some point in the 1970s or 1980s, when this concordat was still in place.) With the church in such a perfunctory role, religious holidays for many merely exist as welcome distractions from everyday life and as opportunities to increase sales. At the far end, there is also a group of young people who consider themselves atheists, even revolutionaries. But they, too, go to church – mostly to avoid trouble with their mothers.
The Catholic church in our little town used to be how the people felt it should be: a conservative element in the town, looking out for its members and protecting their bourgeois values. And in the past, that included the fact that all suicides were re-labelled “accidents”, so that the families could have a Christian burial for the deceased. However, the new priest is convinced that the town is a hotbed of sin and atheism, and that the reason for this is the leniency of his predecessor. He is therefore determined to re-establish the dominating position of the Catholic church. In his mind this not only requires strict interpretation of ecclesiastical law – he also feels that people should address him with due deference.
When Aimer quite unexpectedly commits suicide, his family and friends find themselves at loggerheads with the priest, who refuses to give the deceased a Christian burial, or even pray for him. Instead, the priest goes on a radical crusade to have the body removed from the cemetery (as it is holy ground), and his excessive zeal is met by an equally headstrong resistance from the family. As this conflict unfolds, it divides the community and shines an unwelcome light on some events of the past.
El Soborno del Cielo is a very amusing film, and is generally very strong; but there are deficits in the writing as far as some of the main characters are concerned, as I feel we never learn enough about their motivations or their exact position in the conflict. Another problem with the script is that there are possibly too many ideas thrown into this film, some of which appear only once and are then never used again.
Other than that, there is nothing to criticise here. The acting is very good, with Germán Jaramillo being a particular joy as the radical priest. His counterpart (Aimer’s brother) is played by Guillermo Garcia, but Garcia’s strong acting is being somewhat tarnished by the writing problems just mentioned.
Many of the female characters are also cast very well, including Nicole Quintero, Milady Dau, Sara Deray, and especially Carlota Llano, who gives a very strong performance as the grieving mother.
The film is visually very accomplished – all the colours seem era-specific, without anything having an exaggerated “washed out” look. The film has good cinematography, and the locations are very well chosen.
The opening and end credits are done in the style of a medieval church scroll, which is a nice touch as well.
Even though Lisandro Duque Naranjo decides to employ stock characters as a stylistic element, he still manages to make these characters somewhat believable as real-life people. In revelling in (and lingering on) the absurdity of the situation, he manages to carve out every detail of the many facets of intolerance, betrayal, and hypocrisy within this seemingly close-knit community. This is the most important and the most enjoyable element of the film.
As I said, there are some weaknesses in the writing, but on the whole, this film worked for me, and I believe most people will be able to enjoy it.
Rating: 7.5 to 8.0 out of 10