‘The Catholic School’ Review: A Film That Struggles In Its Entire Duration

Films based on novels have to put a lot of effort into making them work. The novel, working on the dynamic of the word, functions in a way entirely different from films. An emotion that a written sentence could generate, would be differently portrayed in a film . It is just like the way languages function, with one language carrying different words and meanings, and if the same is merely translated with literal meaning into another language, the essence will be lost, although one may understand what is being referred to. Adaptation is also a kind of translation at one level. A translation of all the emotions hidden in words into cinematics. It works when there is a reinterpretation of those emotions through the elements of cinema, and  not just a literal adaptation of the structure of the novel. “The Catholic School” seems to be a victim of such a dilemma in telling a story that is derived from a real-life incident and based on a novel of the same name.

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“The Catholic School” follows the lives of a group of students studying in an all-male Catholic school and how the toxic environment prevalent there brings the monsters out of three youngsters who go off to commit a horrendous crime. The incident, now known as the Circeo massacre, took place in 1975 in Rome, shocking the collective conscience of everyone who was a witness to its heinousness. The film starts five months before the actual event takes place and tries to put a background on the people and the place where they lived. While majorly trying to address the rise in toxic masculinity among teenagers and the troubled relationship they share with their parents, “The Catholic School” seems to touch upon  too many things, never staying close to even one of the narrative strands. There are few scenes that fail to find a place as a whole in the film’s world.

While sending off their wards to an orthodox Catholic school to keep them away from bad influences, the parents don’t realize that their own kids are the bad influence whom they are trying to keep them away from. The three boys who commit the heinous crime are just shown as bad guys who bully other students and have violent tendencies. We never get to know what made them do those things. What could make a 17-year-old abduct, rape, and murder someone and not be guilty of it even for a single second? The film rather tries to build upon the construct of masculinity, about how it is an abundance of excessive testosterone that is making the kids lose their conscience. There are characters who come and go without adding any meaning to the plot or what it is trying to say. More instances come up to create more confusion than sense as to what exactly the maker wants to convey by constructing them. It is as if we are witnessing the lives of everyone with whom some of our main characters are connected.

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It is clear at points how “The Catholic School” is haunted by the shadow of the novel. The way a book explores characters and their psyches are inherently grounded in depth, for the word supports such an exploration. But when adapted without thinking of the constraints of film as a medium, and how the overall distinctness of it demands different ways to make similar points, it all begins to fall down. The narration of the main character, from whose perspective we get to see the events in the film, is spread throughout the film, trying to give words to some of the themes, but when the audio-visuals fail to reach a point, all the pulling from the narration falls short. Filmmaker Stefano Mordini is genuine in his approach to try and bring light on the entire Italian society and the orthodox religion through the scenes, but none of it comes together and is just kept hanging the minute it ends. What adds to the obscurity is the structure where we switch back and forth to different times in relation to the actual night when the incident takes place. The survivors of the crime are not given much exploration as characters; we don’t know who they are or where they come from. Neither do we know why these three go on a killing spree in such an inhumane manner and lose it all. So, in the end, the horror of the incident, which was so anticipated from the start, is not as spine-chilling as it sounds on paper.

The novel “The Catholic School” is written by one of the students of the school who saw all of this closely, and it does not completely resemble reality. While watching the film, there is a feeling looming above our heads that we are reading a novel under the garb of a film, and it is especially saddening as, due to the various limitations of film compared with the novel, some emotions just don’t come alive. The film then serves as only a means to learn about the entire incident. It falls short of being a worthwhile exploration of the human psyche, and the aesthetics, which are rather cleverly shot, end up evoking nothing more than what is being seen.

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Shreyas Pande
Shreyas Pande
Shreyas is a screenwriter who likes contemplating on cinema. That is when he is not writing a poem or quoting some Urdu couplet or posting excessively on his Instagram.

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