“‘I suppose you are right,’ said the Professor reflectively. ‘I suppose we might find it out from him; but I confess that I should feel a bit afraid of asking Sunday who he really is.’
‘Why,’ asked the Secretary, ‘for fear of bombs?’
‘No,’ said the Professor, ‘for fear he might tell me.’” — G. K. Chesterton (“The Man Who Was Thursday,” Ch. XIII)
Doubt is mind’s despair. Minds truly run havoc without a stable, nameable, referable reality to put their finger on. But, alas, they cannot dispense with it. How could they, if that is their main, maybe their only, ability? Doubt is mind’s natural condition. Faith, on the other hand, comes from very a different capacity; perhaps even brews in a different place in our bodies, our lungs, our noses, whatever guides our intuition to smell our own deaths and to breathe our own lives. One thing’s for sure though. Minds are prone to despair; but they are also quite susceptible to stories, that’s their other natural capacity. And it is in those stories that faith, wherever it comes from, wherever it originates, sinks in.
It is Thursday and his church is on fire. He’s sick, a young priest coming back to his senses, throwing up some gastric fluids, some residues of his thoughts. Then we see him some days before doing what he will never be able to do fully within the course of the film: Waking up. He prays to get temptation out of him. He feels his soul is withering. He pours bourbon into his coffee, doubt into his sermons, exhaustion into his deeds. He’s tired and we see it. Everybody does.
But it all changes the day a sexy sinner visits his confessionary. Her confessions are his temptations; her sins his cravings. She comes more as a temptress than a confessing soul, yet a temptress searching for absolution. But who can he absolve? He’s in no position to save anybody, let alone to give, free or forgive anyone at all. His vocation has been built on suppression — his faith is everything he has suppressed. This woman’s visits threaten his weakening will. And that we all can see.
The Man Who Was Thursday starts by searching inside this troubled soul, desperate and alone. Would the viewer be not familiar with G. K. Chesterton’s metaphysical thriller (as was later labelled), they would be inclined to think that this is a movie about the priest’s doubts battling against his faith. And to some degree it is.
First time director (and adapter of Chesterton’s novel), Balazs Juszt, does create a film that looks at this fight between doubt and faith, chaos and order, anarchy and government, through the character of Thursday (François Arnaud, “Big Sky”). Oh, forgot to write the second part of the synopsis. The fire disgraces the priest; he’s sent to Rome to rehabilitate his soul and there he bumps into his old mentor, Charlie (Jordi Mollà, “Riddick”), who turns out to be the head of the Vatican Intelligence (like the FBI but with more brawn). Charlie gets his former mentee into a mission to find the leader of a group of anarchists. The priest turns into undercover agent, infiltrating into the organization, ran (yet not led) by Saturday (Ana Ularu, “Index Zero”), and is there appointed Thursday. Each anarchist agent goes by a day of the week. The most important (or more popular, depends on the book you’re reading) day is missing though. There’s no Sunday. And that, secret leader, is the one Thursday has been tasked to find. A most difficult task because . . . I will not give away the plot — suffice is to say that there’s no Sunday.
It is important to observe that Juszt turns Chesterton’s Thursday into a priest — thus locating the whole fight (and the stakes) onto a whole different arena. Novel Thursday is a poet and a detective. Movie Thursday is the latter but not the former. A reformer he’s made, losing in this way one of the central explorations of Chesterton’s metaphysical inquiry: The role of art (of poetry) in the world. Juszt’s detour leads into a shortcut, for Chesterton’s deep seated belief in poetry is what constitutes the gravitational point around which doubt dances dry. To which degree is Juszt’s a fair decision is debatable. Displacing this arena turns the odds upside down. There’s no epicenter for doubt and faith seems but a facile route to induce order, sometimes synonym with a dictatorship, others just with totalitarianism at large, i.e., religion. And this move trivializes to some degree the original material’s enterprise. The battle of good vs. evil that Juszt introduces in the last act thus lacks the credibility necessary to entice our senses and leave us wondering. On the contrary, Juszt’s variations of the same sin render his deus ex machina instrumental at best — ornamental for sure.
The strongest moments of The Man Who Was Thursday sit in its first act, with this exploration of a dwindling faith, a failing self amidst a solitary existence and a silent God. Towards the end of this first act, the priest reveals his strong desire to be tested, and the test ends up being less interesting than the desire itself. The mystery that opens the film do help to frame this exploration within an alluring narrative. The mystery, nonetheless, loses interest as it unfolds.
Despite Juszt’s good narrative command (without it, the film would just be unintelligible), it seems as though he were unsure who he should be focusing on as he enters into the second act. By the third, Thursday’s nightmare (and Chesterton’s for that matter) is everybody’s confusion. This extends to the cast, mainly Arnaud (yet Ularu’s and Mollà’s last scene is an example of bedazzled acting), who in spite of his best efforts, never gets to command his character’s motivations and acts just as confused as his character is. It feels as though he were lost in a feedback loop of guilt and repentance — which doesn’t ring too well with the existential solitude that starts to develop (and stops at some point) at the beginning of the film, the one that hides behind what is, constitutionally, a good man, the only kind who can get a broken heart, because, all in all, he cares. And there’s Chesterton’s fascination with Job left intact by Juszt — doubtless a sound move.
Then you have the group, the terrorist/anarchist group, whose added motivations (shouldn’t give them away here) excise Chesterton’s critique of their central paradox: Having a hierarchical order within an anarchical association. Saturday’s motivations take away much from the original character’s nihilism that is truly behind the complex dynamic of induced chaos (then by the third act . . . etc.) — an unsound move without to be sure.
The transposition between caring and not caring occasionally works as the film’s fight against reality unfolds — but most of the time is overthrown, betrayed by posited motivations where there should be none. Indeed, Thursday’s very vertigo, his existential anxiety is more of a lack than a motivation. And this Juszt should have embraced given that he dispensed with Chesterton’s original axis, replacing poetry with religion and faith with doubt.
At some point, as Saturday hastily explains Thursday the main tenets of “psychological anarchy” (a term that captures Chesterton’s nightmarish narrative), we get the idea that it is all, ALL, everything is a state of mind, that reality is not, that the only thing that is real is the erasure of what is: Knowledge, reality, God. And it is at this point that we kind of get, not what The Man Who Was Thursday is about, but what the movie tries to do. The realization comes in time, I must say, as it comes very much at a point when our minds are threatening to leave the screen. Yet, as with the anarchist organization in Chesterton’s work, this realization is soon debunked by the facts presented. Facts that cast more doubts than shadows. So sorry if your mind despairs. It’s already too late for that.