An adaptation of any existentialist novel is bound to be a challenge for even the most experienced of filmmakers, let alone a writer-director making their feature debut. However, up and coming filmmaker Balazs Juszt appears to love a challenge and for his feature debut he adapts G.K. Chesterton‘s 1908 metaphysical thriller The Man Who Was Thursday. The result is an ambitious piece of filmmaking that manages to be thought-provoking and effortlessly engaging.
After being disgraced at his local parish, Father Smith (François Arnaud) is sent for spiritual rehabilitation in Rome. Upon his arrival, Smith is met by Charles, a figure from his past, who asks him to infiltrate an anarchist group carrying out religiously motivated crimes. Smith is soon thrust into the group, unaware of who he can trust as he is lead down a dangerous path.
Balazs has crafted the sort of film it is impossible to classify. Opening almost as an erotic thriller exploring the magnificently handsome François Arnaud‘s Father Smith’s battle to suppress his alcoholic and lustful desires. Yet Balazs’ narrative feels part testing-of-faith relgious drama, part horror-thriller and part war film. It’s a curious beast, that gels surprisingly well thanks to Balazs’ strong narrative grasp and a commanding lead performance from Arnaud.
The core theme at the heart of The Man Who Was Thursday appears to be the battle between good and evil and the particular forms that this can take – whether this be alcohol vs. sobriety, sex vs. abstinence or fascism vs. democracy. However, there are no clean cut divisions in Balazs’ film, allowing us as viewers to inhabit the middle ground and question character motivations or plot twists . This is a film that give us as an audience plenty to think about thanks to a narrative filled with philosophical questions and intriguing dynamics.
In its exploration of these questions, The Man Who Was Thursday makes some bold narrative turns that help keep us engaged throughout the whole film. There is a real titillating energy in the erotic thriller angle as Smith/Thursday is lured from his abstinence, whilst darker narrative elements like the anarchist group’s acts of terror are gruesome, inventive and thrilling in a unrelentingly gruesome way. Further excitement is built through Balazs’ use of two timelines: one in Mussolini’s Italy (with the director making an obscure cameo) as Thursday is hunted by fascists, the second in contemporary Rome as Thursday infiltrates the group.
Arnaud is outstanding in capturing the disgraced Priest’s fight against his own personal desires, whilst leading us through the complex twists and turns of The Man Who Was Thursday with an energised confidence. Arnaud explores Smith’s battle between sides – particularly as he is thrust deeper and deeper into the anarchist group. Spanish actor Jordi Mollà adds further gravitas to proceedings as Smith’s mysterious Rome connection, whilst Ana Ularu packs the role of anarchist Saturday with a dangerous energy.
Moments of The Man Who Was Thursday can perplex, but Balazs’s comprehensive conclusion wraps things up in an informative and energetic way whilst reflecting on the multitude of complex ideas buzzing through this piece.
The Man Who Was Thursday is a boldly original watch: gripping, erotic, thrilling and magnificently ambitious. A grounded and consistently impressive performance from Arnaud helps Balazs’s intelligent and thought provoking film shine.
[rating=5] | Andrew McArthur
Mystery, Thriller | Hungary, 2016 | 15 | 2016 Edinburgh Film Festival | 26 June 2016 | Dir.Balazs Juszt | François Arnaud, Ana Ularu, Jordi Mollá, Mark Ivanir