If you’re a student of screenplay structure with a dog-eared copy of a Robert McKee book, it’s best to stay away from “The Catechism Cataclysm.” The new film from director Todd Rohal spends a good majority of its scant seventy-five minute runtime stymieing conventional thought, trafficking in casual blasphemy to depict a metaphysical journey into hell for a protagonist heavily under-equipped to deal with such trauma.
Our terrified lead character is Father William, a lisping, not-altogether-bright priest who seems to wear a collar due to diminished expectations of his parish, and not because of his insight into the Good Book. When we meet Father William, he’s recounting a short story regarding comic happenstance that we see depicted in a stark, immediate manner, involving an overzealous older lady and a mistaken criminal identity. Rohal chooses to showcase this moment with a level-headed sense of reality that, while narrated by a cackling, digression-prone Billy, cements our hero as someone severely out of step with the rest of the world.
Though he appears to know the Bible in and out, it’s clear WIlliam would rather spend his time surfing YouTube. So when a fellow pastor convinces William he needs more life experience, he calls up an old friend, Robbie. The tragic, unspoken dimension beyond this is twofold. We slowly learn that the downbeat Robbie has been on the road for years, serving as a roadie, and not the rock star William envisioned. But there’s also the fact that Robbie, who knew William because he dated the priest’s sister in high school, is despondent. His depression leading him to reconnect with an old acquaintance, even one for whom he doesn’t care, ends up defining their relationship.
Acting on a whim, William proposes a canoe trip, offering to cover the cost of both the trip and the booze. As the two of them shop in a convenience store, they cross paths with two pidgin-English-speaking teens, oddly named Tom and Huck. It’s merely the beginning of a series of adventures our duo embarks upon, as it becomes clear that Father William is set to become the subject of another of his tragicomic stories.
It’s difficult to distinguish between inciting incidents and stakes-raising disasters in “The Catechism Cataclysm,” though somewhere along the way it becomes about humbling William, who begins the trip by dropping his own Bible into the toilet by accident. What follows is William not only gracing Robbie with his stories of being a rock and roll priest (somehow, a failed endeavor), but also imbibing alcohol.
“The Catechism Cataclysm” is mostly scored by head-pounding heavy metal, which turns out to be an appropriate soundtrack for William’s coming nightmare, involving the return of Tom and Huck, a silent demon in sweatpants, and a device that explodes heads. Straddling genres is part of this film’s thesis, as it constantly readjusts its narrative in order to best challenge William, who feels he has strayed from the Church. The argument posed here is that the challenges faced by our hero defy simple explanation or categorization. Like the tales William tells his congregation, they’re only mildly funny, and ultimately your reaction depends on what your perspective might be.
Though it could all be a prank, of course. Rohal directs the film as if it were an extended joke, from the casting of ungainly, doughy Steve Little as the buffoon-ish William to the looney-tunes final where “it was all a dream” becomes a less and less logical answer. “The Catechism Cataclysm” is never entirely funny because the jokes lack context (not entirely sure how fantastical this world is), and it’s never entirely scary because of the various non-sequitiers, such as the late, sobering, climactic montage set to “God Will Fuck You Up.” While some may consider this a weakness, it goes a long way towards establishing “The Catechism Cataclysm” not as a great picture, but something of an unforgettable curiosity. Good luck describing it to friends. [B]