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The Catechism Cataclysm | Review

No Little Task: Rohal’s Sophomore Film Avoids Classification

Underdeveloped priests addicted to Youtube. Lots of canoeing. Japanese girl groups terrorists. Resurrection. Rocks for heads. Steve Little. Todd Rohal. That might be the best explanation of The Catechism Cataclysm one can offer. Just go see it. Rohal has a brand of cinema all his own. In only a pair of features, his films have established him as the creator of a reality that hides within ours, but always indicates itself as a little off, and then in time reveals itself in emphatic moments as existing on an entirely different planet. The Guatemalan Handshake had Rohal covering an ensemble of weird people in their personal variations of one weird situation, while his sophomore The Catechism Cataclysm is a hyper-stylized work of art combining the talents of the writer/director with the enigmatic child-like co-star of Eastbound and Down Little. This is as polarizing as they get, for your enjoyment really boils down completely to whether or not you like the film’s tone and style and if you appreciate the film’s lead in Steve Little. Catechism might just become the new cult classic to be watched at midnight screenings for years to come.

In a narrative which mainly comprises of a weekend spent between the central character Father Billy and his sister’s ex-boyfriend Robbie (Robert Longstreet), Rohal’s style heavily flavors every moment, but it is Little who plays Father Billy who dominates the film. It was a daring choice for Rohal, his style is the star of Handshake, but while that style is apparent to those who recognize it, those new to his work will leave this film talking much more about Little. Knowing where Rohal’s hand shapes this film though proves his talent. It’s rare that a filmmaker’s voice can come through so distinctly these days. There aren’t really any obvious influences for Catechism. Rohal seems to be coming from some combination of the Midwest—particularly religious fanaticism and hypocrisy laced with strip mall and Walmart culture, Lynch, Linklater, Malick, and then the oft-referenced reference points are unfortunately Napoleon Dynamite and fortunately his collaborators David Gordon Green and Jody Hill.

Rohal seems to be interested in clashes. In Handshake most notably Will Oldham’s character of Donald’s clashes with his father and Stool clashes at his jobs and arguably universally accepted societal norms. Catechism introduces a number of clashes. The entire premise is stranding two very different people, Father Billy and Robbie, in a canoe together for a weekend, isolating them from the world with no other options for survival or companionship. Beyond that, there is Billy’s clash with the church. Robbie comes from an entire life of clashing. Even though he is not the rock star Billy thinks he is, the rebellious nature of rock and roll is where he found his calling. He calls himself a “loser” and defines this by describing rejection from his family, never being able to hold down a real job, not having musical talent, never being too smooth with the ladies…

The focus is mainly on Billy’s struggles and weirdness, while Robbie is framed as this guy who has it all together whom Billy looks up to. Robbie’s troubles are only revealed and put on display in one scene when, in a moment of frustration, he bursts Billy’s bubble and tells him the truth about everything, including the entire pretense of their meeting. After that moment, Rohal wipes any sense of innocence, tenderness or constructiveness from their previous interactions. At that moment they are both just losers. That moment also colors the rest of their relationship and the film in a way that adds depth and makes things worth looking closer at.

Beyond those clashes, the pair come from civilization and clash with nature during their canoe trip. They both clash with their pasts, dealing with shame in very different ways. Billy lives in a fantasy world where he convinces himself of a more preferable version of events, while Robbie’s past failures provide him with the gift of indifference, where he only gets upset about his mediocre life when he actually finds himself stuck in the rare moment when he has to think about it. Finally, there is a serious culture clash with the Japanese girls who pop up here and there until they end up playing a role in what proves to be the climactic moment in the film.

Some critics argued that Rohal was just trying to be weird and different in Handshake, but I’m not sure if they can say the same for this one. The first half stays on the path pretty well, without anything too weird apart from Little in general. Once it drives full speed ahead off the cliff of that hairpin turn in act three, it’s a psychedelic freak out fest that is definitely weird, but it’s far enough into the abstract that critics can no longer argue over intent. Clearly Rohal is stepping outside of linear narrative that exists in our reality. The discussion shifts into a potentially equally frustrating, possibly dead-end of what the hell does it all mean? The Japanese audio engineers. The random man from Handshake just sort of hanging out. The resurrection. The rock for a head. These all seem like a laundry list from an issue of Wrapped in Plastic, the 1990s Twin Peaks dedicated fan-zine which spent much of its energy attempting to unwrap the mysteries of the endless number of indecipherable symbols. Likely, they are more referential to outside influences both personal and cultural. Their place in the narrative exists more for feeling than for exposition. That’s what it all boils down to for Catechism. And then you have Little.

There is no precursor to Steve Little (though a more realistic Pee Wee Herman is the only one that comes within shouting distance). Danny McBride created Fred Simmons in The Foot Fist Way and has replicated the character many times over. His character is hilarious, but more pastiche than original. Little’s Eastbound character Stevie Janowsky is not an imitation of anyone else’s work. This naïve, child-like, simple, incompetent, contradictorily over-confident, arguable flâneur is essentially replicated with his Father Billy in Catechism. It doesn’t seem as if Little puts much thought into creating these characters, but rather they seem effortless and somehow close to how he would perceive these situations in real life. Call it unique, idiosyncratic, distinct, whatever adjectives you can pull.

If you this film a chance, you can let it engulf you, for it is the rare film that finds a way to both reinvigorate you, give you a boost of positive confidence in the world, and also depress the hell out of you. Those who take pride in originality will champion this one though, and within all of the original ideas at work there is some actual skillful filmmaking and storytelling.

Reviewed at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. Park City at Midnight Section.

75 Mins. January, 22nd, 2011

Rating 3.5 stars

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