Exemplum: Why a Christian Thriller Made for $10,000 is Better Than Killers of the Flower Moon
Last week I found myself bored at the ridiculous run time (three hours plus) of the new film Killers of the Flower Moon. At the same time, I was mesmerized by the small independent film Exemplum, which runs at one-third the length of Flower Moon. Budget? $10,000.
You read that correctly. Exemplum, a black-and-white movie written, directed, produced and starring a gifted young filmmaker named Paul Roland, was made for the cost of a used car. It’s not a perfect film, and yes, the low budget shows, but overall this is a captivating spiritual drama that asks the big questions about God and the nature of evil.
Martin Scorsese, the director of Killers of the Flower Moon (budget: $200 million) has a long history of addressing both the lives of men who defy moral codes, only to descend in the end into tedium. He also has made Catholic films with themes of spiritual struggle, like Silence. Yet with the raw and well-written Exemplum, Paul Roland has made a better Scorsese movie than Scorsese’s own Flower Moon.
A Priest Breaks Bad
The setup of Exemplum is this: a Catholic priest breaks bad. Father Colin Jacobi (Roland) is a rising social media star. To protect himself from any #MeToo accusations, he starts to tape records confessions: a major violation of Catholic teaching, which holds confidentiality sacred. Father Jacobi then uses what he hears to make YouTube videos, calling his series Exemplum. An exemplum is “an anecdote that illustrates or supports a moral point, as in a medieval sermon.” Fr. Jacobi is using confessions as script fodder to demean his flock and warn his audience about hell and self-destruction. There is less and less talk about redemption. Jesus barely gets mentioned.
The film’s opening narration cleverly sets things up, cleverly using traditional language: “In the year of Our Lord, in the latter days of the Great Pandemic, in a city no discernible from the next, there lived a priest — a priest possessed of deep devotion and deep impiety and whose faith would be determined at the crossroads of both. This is his story. This is his exemplum.”
Rebellion: The Sin of Lucifer
When the charismatic and increasingly famous Father Jacobi is told by his bishop to torque down his skyrocketing social media fame and focus more on mercy and the love of Jesus, Fr. Jacobi rebels. He is arrogant, he loves the attention he is getting, and the idea of being sent to a small poor parish to actually, you know, help sinners, sickens him. Soon he is involved in a blackmail and is breaking his vow of chastity.
Offering wisdom is Jacobi’s superior at the parish, Father Liam (played beautifully by Francis Cronin). Fr. Liam sits Fr. Jacobi down and paraphrases a quote from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. The great Russian writer and dissident, who warned of the spiritual impoverishment of the West, observed: “If only there were evil people somewhere committing evil deeds and we could destroy them. But who is willing to destroy a piece of their own heart?” Father Liam then adds the kicker: “To be devils is in our nature, but only by the grace of God are we sanctified.”
You can’t say it any better than that.
Powerful Writing and Spiritual Insight
One of the oldest cliches in Hollywood is that “if it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.” In other words, without good writing you don’t have a decent movie. This is the great strength of Exemplum. Here is Father Jacobi explaining how he became obsessed with the material he got taping confessions:
It was as if I had discovered some metaphysical code that God had given only me eyes to see. Suddenly people’s sins, disorder, chaos, and frailty yielded an articulate language that I was translating to the masses with Exemplum as my codex … . I collected people’s sins and used them to build Exemplum. The very thing I was entrusted to absolve, I froze in time forever.
This is great writing, and it works on many different levels. It’s a commentary about the sin of pride, but also a sly dig at social media’s self-righteousness, where sins are “frozen in time forever.” Like so many modern social influencers, Father Jacobi is at once both haughty and petty. He looks at Jesus on the altar and declares, “I am my own man.”
Clocking in at a tight 90 minutes (one-third the punishing run time of Killers of the Flower Moon), fantastically written and with good performances by the entire cast, Exemplum is time well-spent. And Roland is a young filmmaker with a bright future.
Mark Judge is a writer and filmmaker in Washington, D.C. His new book is The Devil’s Triangle: Mark Judge vs the New American Stasi.