When the COVID-19 pandemic first reached American shores last year, the initial impact was stunning to say the least. Live music was shutdown along with schools, businesses, and even the movie industry. Major studios’ theatrical offerings were delayed until this year, and some of those offerings are still delayed to this day. Thankfully, for all of the impacts that the pandemic had on the movie industry, not everyone gave up. Independent filmmaker Onur Tukel took to one of the empty churches in New York City to make his movie, Scenes From an Empty Church. Thank goodness he took the chance to make this movie, too. That is because it is one of this year’s most unsuspecting successes from the independent movie community. That is due in part to its story, which will be discussed shortly. The bonus content that accompanies the movie enhances the viewing experience and will be examined a little later. The work of the movie’s cast rounds out the most important of the movie’s elements and will also be examined later. Each item noted is important in its own way to the whole of the movie’s presentation. All things considered, the movie proves to be, again, one of the best of this year’s field of new independent movies, and possibly movies in general.
Scenes From an Empty Church, released Tuesday through MPI Home Video, is one of the most surprising of this year’s new movies, independent and otherwise. The movie’s success comes in part through its story. The story in question follows to priests – Father James and Father Andrew – as they navigate the impacts of the pandemic on the church, which ended up being closed, just like everything else early on. What is interesting here is that the story is a reflection of everything that happened when the pandemic first reached America’s shores, but is not a documentary. It is in fact a fiction, but is so surprisingly engaging and entertaining because it really embraces the old adage that art and life impact one another. Audiences on both sides of the discussion will relate to Father James and Father Andrew in their separate reactions to the forced closure because they will so easily see themselves in the men.
While the impact of the pandemic on the nation is essentially the backbone of this story, it is not the central story. Rather, the examinations of the loneliness that we all felt as a result of the pandemic as well as the role of faith and religion in everything that happened are really the core of the story. Tukel points this out in the feature-length audio commentary that comes with the movie. This element will be discussed more a little later. Getting back on topic, the discussion is so interesting considering that Tukel – again referencing the commentary – admits in the commentary that he is not Christian and relied on his Director of Production (who he said was far more knowledgeable about various religions) for the discussions between Father James, Father Andrew, and Father Andrew’s friend Paul (Max Casella). People nationwide felt very lonely as a result of the isolationist measures forced on Americans by governments at the local, state and federal levels. So, one would imagine that a place like a church would help people ease that sense of loneliness. At first that wasn’t the case at the church, because of Father James, but over time, audiences see Father James change and allow more people to come to the church. Along the way, Andrew, James, and Paul have some interesting discussions on faith. At times, the discussions are serious and deep, such as the existence of the soul. At others, the discussions are far more lighthearted. One of the more lighthearted discussions comes through Paul’s revelation for audiences, the irony that even though he is a Catholic priest, Andrew is actually Jewish. This makes for a memorable, laugh,-inspiring moment. Another great moment comes as Andrew and James are trading scripture to try and outdo one another on a separate discussion. Paul chimes in after the men are done and states, “That was great. It was like dueling banjos, except with scripture.” Getting back on the topic at hand the story, which takes place largely in the church’s sanctuary and kitchen, is so strong because ultimately it follows the changes that Paul, James, and Andrew go through as they begin to let more people into the church and have their release. That character development within the main trio of characters and the portrayals of those who come to the church strengthens the story even more. Taking all of this into account, the story is so simple, but is so rich in that simplicity. Audiences really will find themselves fully immersed in the story because of the story and its execution. The success that results from that full engagement and entertainment is itself ironic because according to Tukel himself, this may end up being the last movie that he helms. This is one of so many so interesting revelations made in the audio commentary.
According to information from IMDB, Tukel has helmed approximately 15 movies since his directorial debut, House of Pancakes in 1997. That count includes this movie. Interestingly it turned out to not be his last movie. He also directed the movie, Tes Yeux Mourants / That Cold Dead Look in Your Eyes this year. So that means that maybe just maybe audiences will see more content from Tukel in the years to come after all. He does also admit during his commentary that he says a lot of things that he doesn’t really mean. This movie certainly shows that Tukel has talent as a writer and director, after all. That talent is exhibited thanks to the work of his cast, who he admits he did not even audition. He states in the commentary that everyone in the movie is someone that he knows either directly or through someone else. He adds that for the most part he did not have to really step in and tell the cast how to do its job. This moves into the matter of the cast’s work, which will be discussed later. Getting back on topic again, Tukel reveals that he is not a Christian nor is he even a practicing Muslim even though he and his family are from Turkey. He leaned heavily on his Director of Production (DP for short), who happened to be far more versed in various religions than himself for this movie’s dialogue and story. It just makes for such an interesting juxtaposition. Here is some one who is not Christian nor even practicing Muslim for that matter, and he is helming a movie that he wrote about the role of religion and faith in general during such a difficult time. Speaking of the writing, Tukel also reveals through his commentary that some of the scenes that are in the movie were not even in the original script. The talks of how the scenes came to be are themselves engaging. They make the movie’s bonus deleted scenes all the more important. That is a matter for another time. Between everything noted here and the rest of Tukel’s discussions throughout the movie, his commentary makes for so much engagement and entertainment in its own right. When that is considered along with the engagement and entertainment ensured through the movie’s completely unpretentious story, that whole shows even more why Scenes From an Empty Church is so surprisingly enjoyable. That is not all that makes the movie so enjoyable. As noted already, the cast’s work on camera puts its own touch to the movie.
The cast’s work on screen is so important because every single bit of that work feels so natural. Casella’s performance in particular is a prime example of the enjoyment that the cast’s work brings to the movie. Going back to the audio commentary, Tukel reveals here that Casella was “going through his own things” when the movie was being made, and that he used those personal matters to help him build on his performance as Paul. Casella succeeded in that approach so well. It makes Paul such a sympathetic character that audiences will love. Interestingly, Tukel also reveals in the commentary that he modeled Paul after himself, as a sort of “lost” figure, trying to find his way. Casella obviously took that into account with his own personal matters to enhance his performance even more.
Casella is not the only actor worth noting. Majorie Johnson and Edward Carnevale star as parishioners Elisabeth and Jimmy. Jimmy suffers from severe anxiety. Elisabeth meanwhile just wants to be able to pray. Their personalities are so distinct from one another, and each actor is so believable in their respective role. The matter of fact personality that Johnson brings to Elisabeth as she tells James and Andrew that she can hear their discussion is just so deadpan. There is something about that “I can hear you but I really don’t care” persona makes her so memorable. In the same vein, Carnevale is just as believable as Jimmy prays, and cries, trying to overcome that noted anxiety. It would have been so easy for him to ham it up, but he never once does that. It makes his brief moment on camera so moving in its own right. Similarly, Natalie Carter as Nurse Sara is just so entertaining as she tries to get Father James to reveal what her husband has confided in him. Not only that, but her presence as she talks about wanting to leave her job as a nurse is just as moving. There is something in the way she handles Sara’s mixed thoughts and emotions that is itself fully believable.
As if all of this is not enough, the subtlety in the performances put on by Kevin Corrigan (Father Andrew) and Thomas Jay Ryan (Father James) that makes them just as enjoyable to watch throughout. What really makes their performances so enjoyable through that subtlety is how they use that to really bring out the humanity in each man. So many people thing that priests, ministers, etc. are these high, holy figures. But watching the two discuss philosophy, theology, and the use of people clapping every day for healthcare workers (is it really to support them or is it just self serving? – another interesting thought) makes them fully relatable. It makes them “one of us” so to speak, and each man succeeds so well in this matter.
On yet another note, Craig Bierko is just as deserving of his own attention even in his brief performance as “the sinner.” Going back yet again to the audio commentary, Tukel reveals in the scene with Bierko (which apparently according to Tukel was not even in the movie’s initial cut) could have been Satan according to one of Tukel’s own friends. In hindsight, it makes sense, looking at Bierko’s semi-neurotic performance. There is a certain edge about “the sinner,” and the fact that he is dressed all in black, makes that possibility even more sensible even if that was not the initial intent. Bierko’s performance in his scene with the priests sort of makes it a biblical sort of situation with “the devil” facing off against the priests, pointing out the shortcomings of Christianity. It is just one more of so many wonderful, natural performances from the movie’s cast. When this performance, the others noted here and those of the rest of the cast are all considered together, they leave no doubt as to the importance of the work done by the movie’s cast. When that work is considered along with the impact of the story and its companion commentary, that whole makes fully clear, why Scenes From an Empty Church, is such a surprisingly engaging and entertaining presentation.
MPI Home Video’s presentation of director Onur Tukel’s Scenes From an Empty Church is an unsuspecting success. It is one of the most surprising offerings among this year’s independent movie industry and movie industry in general. That is proven in part through its story. Unlike so many independent movies out there past and present, there is no sense of pretense even considering the depth of content in the story, which focuses on the role of religion and faith in the face of a difficult situation, such as the ongoing pandemic. Yes, ultimately the story will be dated. Regardless, it will still find itself relatable for audiences even despite this matter. It approaches the topic with such care and genuine interest. It makes the story fully believable as a mirror of everything going on even now. The feature-length audio commentary that accompanies the movie in its new home release adds its own engagement and entertainment to the whole. That is because it offers so much background on the movie. It is not just a director talking about certain kinds of lenses, shots, lighting, etc. It is refreshing to have that more personal discussion throughout the movie. The work of the movie’s cast puts the final touch to the movie. The cast’s work throughout the movie feels so natural. It makes suspension of disbelief so much easier, and in turn engagement that much easier, too. Each item examined is important in its own way to the whole of the movie. All things considered, they make the movie one of this year’s best new independent movies and potentially best movies overall.
Scenes From an Empty Church is available now. More information on this and other titles from MPI Home Video and MPI Media Group is available online at:
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