Todd Rohal’s The Catechism Cataclysm is the type of muddled, absurdist film making that seems almost critic-proof. It’s so undeniably unhinged and seemingly without purpose that it’s hard to grade it — it feels like the audience gave Rohal an exam, and he answered entirely different questions — in a language that he made up after waking up from a week-long bender. It wants very much to be something clever yet filled with unabashed silliness, and while it has moments where it succeeds, it simply can’t hold up the weight of its parts.
The film centers on Father William (Steve Little, “Eastbound and Down”), an affable, amiable but aimless priest who appears to have only the vaguest understanding of his profession’s purpose. At the urging of his superiors, he decides to take a trip to try to rediscover the meaning of his life’s work, and as a result decides to try to connect with God through a trip into nature. He reconnects with his sister’s long-gone ex-boyfriend Robbie (Robert Longstreet) and through a combination of cajoling, harassing and determined wheedling, persuades him to join him.
What follows is an exercise in frustration, befuddlement, and annoyance for Robbie, as he learns that William is, quite frankly, a pathetic human being. He doesn’t have even a fundamental understanding of societal norms, is puzzled by even simple complications, and has no idea how to take care of himself, even less so when canoe-bound in the middle of nowhere. The pair spend their few hours bickering — or rather, Robbie does, since William is too dumb to even know when he’s being annoying, much less when he’s being insulted. Of course, the pair get lost, which leads to a loud, blustering argument that threatens to drive them apart, until… well, until the film takes a turn into Crazytown.
The pair encounter a flamboyant pair of Japanese women and their silent, stoic companion, and settle in for a drunken night of unrelenting madness that results in mind control, exploding heads, hints of Satanism, and a stream of madcap, nonsensical events. It’s a sequence of occurrences that seem like they’re supposed to have some purpose, but I’ll be damned if I could figure out what that purpose is. Oh, I know why everything happens — it’s all designed so that William eventually finds his inner strength and reconnects with God and blabbity blah blah. It’s that the events themselves are so inanely pointless and patently foolish that it simply falls short of ever feeling like a coherent narrative. It felt more like a series of poorly-written “Kids In The Hall” sketches with discordant religious undertones.
The Catechism Cataclysm isn’t without its moments of humor or cleverness, and the players are both decent enough actors. Little’s William is one of those idiotic yet lovable manchilds that you can’t help but occasionally be charmed by, even if you’d want to knock his teeth loose in real life. Longstreet gives a convincing portrayal of the weary, wasted-life everyman who stumbled into this inane adventure and wishes he could take that decision back. But William’s looniness and rambling, bumbling jackassery is overplayed, with each joke being carried on for about ten seconds too long. Ten seconds may not feel like much, but when it happens every five or ten minutes? That’s a lot of jokes that should never have seen the light of day. At the end of the film (which was a midnight showing), I was starting to feel the same way about the film itself.
The Catechism Cataclysm screened that the Independent Film Festival of Boston. It opens in limited release on October 20, 2011.