Screens at CIFF: 10/16 & 10/17
World premiere: 3 January, 2013, Croatia

On one of the Dalmatian islands, a small town has been slowly deflating for years; the death rate far outstrips the birth rate, and for the most part, the townspeople seem disinterested enough in preserving their little corner of the world to do a damn thing about it. In the meantime, the owner of the convenience store that provides the townfolk with their prophylactics is in the midst of a moral panic, having been told by his wife that every load of semen trapped inside a condom that he sold makes him the accessory to the murder of hundreds. The junior of the town's two Catholic priests, not much liked or respected by the community at large, hits upon an idea that will solve both the population crisis and the shopkeeper's crisis in one gesture: the two of them will pierce every condom sold with a fine needle, thus increasing the number of pregnancies and leaving all of those sacred sperms free to chase and romp through the uterus as God intended.

This is the scenario of The Priest's Children, a satiric Croatian comedy that is notable if for no other reason than communicating to the outside world that "Croatian comedy" is a thing that exists. As for how successful the film is, as a comedy first and as a satire in particular second, I remain neutral, leaning positive. Frankly, the film can't entirely decide which satiric target it wants to hit: "something something Catholicism" isn't nearly specific enough for a political cartoon, let alone a feature film. But every attempt the film makes to say something more specific and lancing about how the Catholic priesthood is full of sexual hypocrites, or is made up of a bunch of sexphobic men dictating how women should exercise their sexuality, or how the hierarchal nature of the Church encourages the establishment of tiny dictatorships in which the clergy decides as a matter of private opinion how entire communities are to live and function "according to God's will", every stab at one of these themes, as I was saying, is stymied by the film's much easier and more comprehensive and successful quest to make Father Fabijan (Krešimir Mikić), crusading condom violator and totalitarian busybody, a genuinely nice and likable, if completely awkward figure.

Now, let's not lose sight of the prize here: The Priest's Children is awfully pleasant, and rarely less than funny - Mikić has a great face for comedy in a sort of very reduced Buster Keaton mode, where his slightly alarmed befuddlement is amusing regardless of what else it's connected to. And the cast around him are broad comic types who don't act like trite buffoons: the doughy condom-seller Petar especially, played by a certain Nikša Butijer with a roly poly sweetness about him that suggest the kind of man easily steamrolled by those around him with stronger personalities (his wife, his priest, their co-conspirator), but not unlikeably meek as a result. It's a little like every "small town of quirky sorts" to come from places like Australia, Ireland, Italy, and wherever else oddballs congregate, though this isn't the mode that the film mostly operates in, thankfully.

The mode it does operate in isn't necessarily the greatest thing in the world either, though. Frankly, The Priest's Children is a little bit too easy for its own good, starting from its very first shot, tracking across babies in a maternity word, across a very bearded Fabijan lying among them, and then wackily doing a double take. Which is an awfully strenuous way to open a movie, and the comedy rarely rises above that level of predictability and strained, forcible silliness; the number of times that director Vinko Brešan (a figure of great note in Croatian cinema, I am told) relies on the shock value of the priest holding a condom or otherwise doing saucy, sex-related things for the sake of a joke is tiring all by itself, and this isn't the only kind of TV sitcom-style gag that The Priest's Children loves enough to trot out three or four or ten times. Nor does this kind of silly humor really lend itself to the satiric outlook that the film implies is its real focus, for while silly can be satiric (the career of Monty Python proves that), in this case, it serves mostly to defang the harshness of what Fabijan is up to; the best and most probing version of The Priest's Children openly grapples with the reality that the priest is committing a grotesque crime against people's autonomy, but the version that was made and released trivialises these actions so much that not even a harrowing death near the end really brings it back home.

So all we have left is a brightly comic register, and for what it is, I guess the movie works pretty well. Brešan has good ideas, some of which land a little hard (there's a lot of direct address, which I think is meant to remind us that this is all part of Fabijan's confession; it doesn't work), some of which is genuinely great (the priest's active imagination consists of people having weirdly pantomimed sex scenes against a stark white backdrop, the one repeated joke that I found to gain energy through repetition, rather than losing it). And there's never a moment where the film isn't charming, which is hard to do right. Absolutely nothing about this scenario nor the hype it has received suggests that "charming" was the right target to aim for, but the movie goes down easy, and that does have to count for something.