Exemplum (United States, 2022)

April 07, 2023
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Exemplum Poster

Paul Roland’s Exemplum opens with a definition (not a bad idea considering how obscure the term may be to all but classical literature scholars): “EXEMPLUM: 1. An example or model. 2. An anecdote that illustrates or supports a moral point, as in a Medieval sermon.” Although an understanding of the term isn’t necessary to watch and/or appreciate the movie, it adds a dimension. The film itself plays like part neo-noir thriller and part morality play. Roland makes the most of his micro budget (according to the director, it was $9,500) to give the movie a distinctive look, although there are times when a lack of coverage results in some odd editing choices.

The premise is intriguing as is the eventual direction in which Roland takes the film. We’re introduced to Father Colin Jacobi (Roland), a practicing priest at a local church who is widely liked by members of the congregation. Colin, however, has a secret – he has gotten into the habit of recording (via a low-tech portable cassette recorder) the confessions of the penitent. Colin uses that material for a series of podcasts he produces and, when those prove to be Internet gold, he gets his 15 minutes of fame. His motives are sincere but he runs afoul of a bishop who doesn’t like the priest’s high profile and moves to shut him down. Paul takes this personally and starts looking for ways to force the bishop (who has a poor record when it comes to removing sex offenders from their ministries) to reverse his position. In order to accomplish this, he makes a Faustian bargain with a notorious hacker to blackmail a wealthy and influential parishioner into using his influence with the bishop. Things don’t go as expected, however, and Colin finds himself in a dangerous position. Having lost the moral high ground, he acts in what he believes to be a selfless fashion to regain it. Meanwhile, after departing the priesthood, he starts a relationship with a newcomer to the housing development where he lives but, by doing so, he places her life in danger as the hacker sees the relationship as an exploitable weakness whereby Colin can be controlled.

The storyline at times feels rushed – the 96-minute running time could have benefitted from another 10-15 minutes to slow the pace and allow things to develop more organically. One key relationship – that between Colin and his potential love interest, Lilly (Brittany Lewis) – feels rushed. The means by which Colin connects with the mysterious hacker isn’t credible and, at least from a technological perspective, a hard sell. Although not all of the narrative hiccups could have been solved by a longer cut, the added time would have allowed for deeper character development and interaction.

Exemplum looks great. There’s something about the black-and-white aesthetic that removes the film from the mundane reality of color. Combined with Roland’s canny choice of inherently photogenic locations (including St. Andrew’s in Pasadena, which was available due to pandemic restrictions), the final product looks far better than what one might anticipate considering the budget. Like the film debuts of Darren Aronofsky (Pi) and Christopher Nolan (Following), the black-and-white approach helps to separate Exemplum from the pack.

Conceptually, there are two compelling aspects explored during the course of the film’s running time. The first is the idea of a priest recording confessions then using those recordings as the basis of a podcast. The online angle could have been mined more deeply with greater emphasis on the pressures facing Colin (both spiritual and worldly) as he struggles to balance his beliefs with the heady excesses of unexpected fame and success. The other fascinating element relates to Colin’s motivations, which remain murky even to him. Are his actions, even insofar as making his “deal with the Devil,” the result of true calling from God or are they ego-driven?

The performances, as is often the case in indie productions, are variable. In taking on the lead, Roland may have bitten off more than he can chew in front of the camera. His acting is uneven. There are times – mostly during the quieter moments – when his interpretation of Colin is effective. On other occasions, however, he’s too theatrical and over-the-top. If there’s a standout, it’s Francis Cronin (as Colin’s superior, Father Liam), whose work exudes a distinct Dafoe-ish (as in Willem Dafoe) quality.

Debut features are often interesting more because of what they indicate about a burgeoning filmmaker than because of what they represent on their own. Exemplum is engaging, if flawed (sometimes frustratingly so), but this isn’t a run-of-the-mill digital production rushed out by someone wanting to have the experience of making a movie. There’s more going on here and it points to Roland as having taken a promising first step. The open question, of course, is whether he has other stories to tell and where that next step may take him…

Watch it on TUBI here.

Exemplum (United States, 2022)

Director: Paul Roland
Cast: Paul Roland, Joseph Griffin, Brittany Lewis, Francis Cronin, Jennifer Massey, Kenan Jerome Floyd, Nelson Ritthaler
Home Release Date: 2023-03-17
Screenplay: Paul Roland
Cinematography: Vlad Ionescu
Music: Andrew Halpin
U.S. Distributor: Palindrome Pictures
Run Time: 1:36
U.S. Home Release Date: 2023-03-17
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Profanity, Violence)
Genre: Thriller
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1