CFF Review: Onur Tukel’s ‘Scenes From an Empty Church’
Set within the confines of the space in and directly outside of a locked-down Catholic church in NYC during the height of the COVID pandemic, Onur Tukel’s spiritually charged drama “Scenes from an Empty Church” is a film that shines a light on the ways we’ve all coped with the trauma of our recent isolation in different ways. Unfortunately it’s also a film where viewer mileage will greatly vary due to the myriad of spiritual ideas that are explored yet never very meaningfully displayed. While the movie isn’t about religion directly, it’s very much a highly present thematic due to the narrative being centered around two priests and it taking place almost entirely inside the church, which likely won’t do much for some viewers. That being said it refreshingly never feels like the film is working to force any specific set of ideals onto the viewer as it’s more interested in exploring the varying ways humankind has coped during tragedy, how we apply our individual spirituality to the events unfolding around us, and how we can work to overcome our differences in a time where we need human connection more than ever.
It primarily follows Father Andrew (played brilliantly by Kevin Corrigan), a middle-aged priest who’s struggling to find a sense of being helpful during this extremely strange time in our society where the interactions he can have with the church’s congregation is extremely limited. He lives a fairly meager life with his elder friend Father James (a solid performance by Thomas Jay Ryan) as they try to decipher their place in all of this mess, and slightly disagree on how to go about fulfilling their duties. It’s not long before their dreary day-to-day existence is abruptly uprooted by the arrival of Father Andrew’s old friend Paul (played as likably as possible by Max Casella), who he has known for most of his life but hasn’t seen in many years. Paul is the opposite of the kind of guy you’d expect to see hanging out with a couple of priests: he isn’t a man of overtly open faith, he’s a recently recovered alcoholic who curses a lot, and he’s openly disobeying every COVID guideline in existence. The meat of the film follows the three men as Paul urges them to begin letting people back into the church during this time of need, and the multitude of guests that they interact with during this process.
Due to the blatant disregards several characters have for masks and social distancing, it’s easy to miss the message of the film at times as you try not to be frustrated by their ignorance. Especially Paul, the person that sparks the events the whole story is centered around, is extremely unlikable due to his disregard for the safety of others despite having a good personality and being one of the characters the movie wants you to connect with the most. It’s almost like the filmmakers tried to depict his blatant ignorance as being acceptable because he has so many other redeeming qualities, but it doesn’t really succeed at making him likable or giving him much nuance in the end.
It’s very refreshing seeing a film exploring spirituality that’s not trying to force any sort of agenda on the viewer, and there’s excellent performances from nearly all involved. The surprise appearance by Craig Bierko was a darkly comedic treat, and a good example of the wide variety of people depicted in the movie. All of these good qualities though, much like Paul’s character, can’t quite redeem the film as a whole despite there being a lot to like. It doesn’t feel like it has anything overtly powerful or unique to say even though it manages to evoke a lot of emotion during it’s ninety-eight minute runtime, leaving you feeling like you haven’t gained much from the experience by the time it’s over. It’s worth giving a watch if the spiritual subject matter appeals to you or if you’re looking for a film that explores the side effects of the pandemic through a unique lens, but even though there’s a couple of truly magical scenes in the final act that almost anyone could enjoy, if this doesn’t immediately grab your attention after reading the description then it likely won’t after watching it either. If it does, however, you can come inside the church for yourself on Prime Video, Tubi, and VOD.