Once, there was a special world, if not closed off then at least hidden. The communist regime had ensconced it well, having tolerated it and even used it for its own interests but otherwise behaving as if it did not exist. The post-communist quarter century repositioned it not only at the centre of many social phenomena but also under the public limelight. Religion is present today almost everywhere, even though looked upon differently, sometimes very differently. Romanian film did not pay much attention to it, not even when it became renowned in the world. With several exceptions. Cristian Mungiu actually won an award at Cannes – and his actresses another one – with ‘Beyond the Hills,’ the story of an exorcism that resulted in murder. His film was based on a real case that occurred at the country’s eastern border. Calin Netzer adapted the novel – with significant autobiographical accents – of a young writer who explores the spiritualist temptations of a couple of students. ‘Ana, Mon Amour’ talks about confessions, processions with relics, religious interdictions – almost daily realities for many Orthodox Romanians.
Now, Daniel Sandu, a film director of Netzer’s generation, tackles the world in which future priests are made, in ‘A Step Behind the Seraphim.’ The world of theological seminaries – in this case too, the film is based on autobiographical elements. The seminarians live in a boarding school regimen, so that the atmosphere is special, a combination of piety and barracks. The candid teenager goes through multiple traumas – some of them inherent to the coming of age, others connected to the hypocrisy behind the faithfulness outwardly shown by priests, professors and teachers. The overall picture is sombre: students gradually become hoodlums, while their educators are corrupt or sadistic. Seminary principals come and go, the result of endless scandals. The one who torments the film’s young hero and his colleagues belongs to the second typology. He’s a sadist specialising in the abusive expelling of students. He even has a “programme”: he wants to eliminate the weeds that risk compromising the Church in the future. But, in fact, this is just a pretext for profoundly discriminatory authoritarianism. He lies, blackmails, encourages delation, even resorts to beatings. He is presented as a demonic spirit infiltrated at the heart of the Church.
Here is, in fact, the shortcoming of the film: it seems to highlight what is a pathological rather than a significant case. Nevertheless, in the background one can notice several phenomena that explain much of the current priestly practice. A professor even teaches his students, off the record, how to prosper in the future by abusing their position and prestige – the tricks of a financially successful career. The sadist principal is using delation on a wide scale – he has an entire folder with compromising files, and friends secretly snitch on each other. Students also end up defending themselves by resorting to his weapons. For instance, they confess and warn him that he cannot betray the secret of the confession in order to denounce them. Many tolerate the students’ transgressions for the benefits provided by their parents. Even the latter look upon their sons’ priestly career as upon the right investment. What priests can come out of such an environment? Corrupt, lovers of money, cynical, hypocritical. Let’s not idealise: teenagers are not and it is not recommended that they be saints, and boarding school life has its unavoidable promiscuities. But there is a long way from here to the atmosphere described in the film.
At least from this standpoint, the film describes well a certain social environment, circumscribed but important through its implications. Many of the scandals that reach the public stem from the formation of future priests. How is it possible for people such as the film’s villain to prosper in such environments? Firstly, it is also the effect of a tradition. Theological seminaries and academia, drastically reduced in number, survived communism under the exclusive umbrella of the Church. After 1990, they were gradually integrated into the public education system, but the old customs persisted. The seminary principal was often a small local tyrant, who only feared the bishop, a fairly easily corruptible authority. In fact, the film does not insist on the sexual abuses that still occur in seminaries – the case of the Husi bishop, recently forced to step down because sex tapes involving a former seminary student became public, is the most recent one. However, it implicitly suggests the hypocrisy of the Church, which claims it ordains virgin men when, in fact, most of the seminarians remain anything but chaste. Financial interests – those of profiteering professors, of students who dream about the privileges of their future career, of parents who harbour great expectations – seriously corrupt youths who, in their sermons, will not vindicate capitalism but virtuous poverty and disinterested charity.
Even though the problems of hypocrisy and unscrupulous ambition are not the profoundest of those gnawing on the body of the Church, they are certainly not to be neglected. No matter how numerous the Orthodox willing to forgive anything on the part of their priests will be, the number of those disappointed, who will distance themselves from the Church, will grow unless a reform of the theological education system is successfully implemented.