If you were only to watch only the most recent two of Onur Tukel's films, Scenes From an Empty Church and The Misogynists, odds are fairly strong that you'd find yourself confused and more than a little bewildered about what to think of the always thoughtful yet frequently edgy Tukel.
Truthfully, edgy is not what I would call Scenes From an Empty Church, Tukel's latest film that is set for a simultaneously theatrical and digital release with MPI Media Group following the film's Chattanooga Film Fest premiere.
Thoughtful? Most definitely.
Challenging? In certain ways.
Of course, Tukel has a much broader catalogue than just his most recent two films and if one explores Tukel's filmography with an open mind and heart it would be undeniable that Scenes From an Empty Church has a place comfortably within it and may be, at least at this point in the U.S.'s history, one of the most satisfying and rewarding films yet to delve within the pandemic experience that has so thoroughly changed the way we live, think, relate, believe, and connect.
Scenes From an Empty Church is planted firmly within the New York City-based world of the pandemic, two priests, Father Andrew (Kevin Corrigan) and Father James (Thomas Jay Ryan), grieve the loss of a senior priest to COVID-19 in decidedly different yet equally impactful ways in a city, and parish, shut down by the deadly virus. They struggle to peacefully co-exist, Father James's pre-existing neat freak tendencies now running ramp amidst the anxiety and fear that a good majority of Americans have felt at some point while locked down in social isolation.
When an old friend of Father Andrew's, Paul (Max Casella), seeks to visit in a world where even a well-intended, innocent visit can be deadly, a light seemingly flickers between shards of stained glass and it becomes apparent that a church opening, tentatively and with rather extreme caution, needs to happen in the near future.
In some ways, I suppose, the story that follows has benchmarks of familiarity as established and not so established parishioners are invited in to pray, with appointments of course, and we come face-to-face with everyone from Nurse Sara (Natalie Carter), whose compassion fatigue and overly stressed marriage are both wearing on her, to Craig Bierko's character known only as "The Sinner," a guy whose generous "donation" buys him an adult baptism despite more than a few caution flags.
Tukel has always been a master at assembling just the right ensemble for his films. While folks like Kevin Corrigan, Max Casella, and Paul Reiser are certainly familiar names, there's no singular spotlight shining brightly here as this film that has human connection at its very heart radiates that connection with an absolutely stellar ensemble.
There are no weak performances here.
Corrigan and Ryan have a beautiful working chemistry, simultaneously irritating the heck out of each other while also caring for one another and for their pastoral responsibilities within the church. They wear the fears and anxieties of these two men believably while also bringing to life the myriad of debates we've all had from "Do I wear a mask or don't I?" to all the "What if?" questions we've asked ourselves time and again.
Both priests are relatable men yet there's a quiet, undeniable joy their exude in doing the work that they do.
Max Casella truly shines as Paul, an atheist with a need to process life whose entire being is asking questions seemingly bigger than his own worldview.
Among the key supporting players, Natalie Carter is an absolute gem here while Craig Bierko is inspired and Paul Reiser, in a relatively brief appearance, reminds us why the entire world loves Paul Reiser.
Seriously, the entire world.
Andrew Shemin's lensing vacillates between warm and intimate and, at times, confining and claustrophobic. Shemin makes sure we feel what everyone else is feeling. Original music by Michael Montes is equally immersive and impactful.
A unique, inspired cinematic turn from Onur Tukel, Scenes From an Empty Church thinks and feels so many of the things we've all been feeling along this pandemic journey and it does so with heart, humor, honesty, and surrender. The film will be available theatrically and through your usual digital streaming platforms on July 2nd from MPI Media Group.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic