Determined to raise the birth rate among his Dalmatian island flock, a Catholic clergyman starts to play God in top Croatian helmer Vinko Bresan’s “The Priest’s Children.” Adapted from a controversial stage play by screenwriter Mate Matisic, this acerbic satire pokes fun at hot-button ethical issues in highly cinematic, jauntily paced fashion. Currently the top-grossing domestic production of the year (and the third highest-grossing of all time since Croatia achieved independence), the film topped the Karlovy Vary fest audience popularity poll until it was overtaken at the end by the Czech comedy “Revival.” Further fest play is assured, with niche arthouse exposure a real possibility in some territories.
Helmer Bresan (“How the War Started on My Island,” “Marshal Tito’s Spirit,” “Will Not End Here”) is known (and loved) for using humor to approach sensitive historical and cultural topics. Here it’s the Catholic Church, which currently opposes sexual education in Croatian schools, that comes in for an irreverent ribbing.
Framed by scenes of a priest’s confession, the film tells the story of why Father Fabijan (Kresimir Mikic) winds up in a hospital bed. Sometimes speaking directly to the camera, Fabijan recounts his complicated tenure as spiritual adviser on the tiny island of Dnevnik, a spot where burials far exceed births, and where his popular predecessor, Father Jakov (Zdenko Botic), remains to lead the children’s choir and local sporting leagues.
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At first, the tone-deaf, non-athletic Fabijan has trouble finding his niche, but the confession of harbor-side kiosk vendor Petar (Niksa Butijer), whose pious wife (Marija Skaricic) believes that he is committing a sin by selling condoms, sparks a brainstorm. In the spirit of the Church’s stance on birth control, Fabijan decides to pierce the prophylactics that Petar sells in order to increase the island’s birth rate. To make the plan more effective, Fabijan and Petar join forces with crazed pharmacist Marin (Drazen Kuhn), whose war experience left him an ardent nationalist.
Sure enough, when Marin starts to substitute vitamins for birth-control pills, the birth rate skyrockets and Fabijan’s church is chock-a-block with pregnant brides. This phenomenon attracts a visit from the bishop (leading Serbian thesp Lazar Ristovski, also the pic’s co-producer) as well as a deluge of fertility-seeking foreign tourists.
As the law of unintended consequences comes into play, so, too, do subplots involving child sexual abuse by priests, a madwoman (Jadranka Dokic) and a baby left in a cardboard box on the church doorstep, as the film’s tone smoothly shifts from blithe comedy to sardonic absurdity to melancholic irony.
Screenwriter-composer Matisic studs the dialogue with bluntly comical aphorisms (such as Petar’s observation that “people fuck more during the holidays — and before marriage, too”), while some of helmer Bresan’s most hilarious visuals pithily illustrate just what the islanders get up to — and with whom.
As the plot’s main propeller, tall, lanky Mikic is a sympathetic screen presence, especially when disillusionment sets in after Fabijan does what he perceives as his Christian duty. The rather generic but colorful supporting cast boasts plenty of charisma and excellent comic timing.
Crisp widescreen lensing by Mirko Pivcevic captures the beauty and charm of the island location, while the bright tech package, supplied by Bresan’s regular crew, is everything it should be. Sandra Botica Bresan, the helmer’s wife and longtime editor, amplifies the comedy with her judicious cutting. Matisic, who has scored all of Bresan’s films, provides another energetic, distinctly Balkan soundtrack.