So often in cinema — and especially the cinema of Eastern Europe — the importance of fathers is felt in their very absence. Men who’ve left their expected family roles, and wreckage in their wake, is a theme that crops up again and again, whether they have gone off to war or to make a living in more lucrative conditions, or simply ditched their responsibilities for another woman or the bottle. Whatever the reason, the societal message to audiences is clear: youngsters are messed up by not having a solid male role model to emulate, and this wound will prompt them to angrily act out, or at least ache to repair the loss.
Sometimes in these archetypal stories fathers come back, only for the distance to remain unbridged. In Russian auteur Andrei Zvyagintsev’s The Return (2003), two adolescent boys are shocked when their father appears after twelve years, and a wilderness bonding trip unleashes repressed hostility. Romanian director Radu Jude makes more of a black comedy out of the failings of fatherhood, but his absurdist portrayal of a deadbeat dad who holds his ex’s household under siege Everybody in Our Family (2012) still stokes our fears that the line between civil niceties and out-of-control mayhem is thin. In the recent Czech-Slovak drama Let There Be Light (2019) by Marko Škop, the fallout is graver still, as a father’s absence as a migrant worker is a catalyst for his son to seek a sense of belonging and macho affirmation in a far-right paramilitary group.
The need for a father as a guidance point is a notion that seems increasingly conservative and outmoded as the nuclear family as a normalised standard is questioned and alternate models of care-giving environments proliferate, but however mythical or incomplete this narrative may be, the «absent father brings trauma and disaster» plotline remains a cinematic staple. It feeds expectant parents’ anxiety, in the midst of this deluge of cautionary screen warnings, that they may one day fall short.
Romanian director Andrei Dăscălescu has, with Holy Father, not added to this vast stockpile of scare stories so much as used the documentary form to unravel the inherited baggage he has in his head around the notion of the failed father. He decided to pre-empt any feared catastrophe and started making the wry, intimate, and candid film while his daughter was still in his girlfriend’s womb. When he was six, his own father abandoned him and his bakery-manager mother to go off to become a monk. Determined to excel as a parent, he hopes if he can solve the mystery as to why this happened, he will have the key to prevent himself from doing anything equivalent. It is, of course, a form of magical thinking that grasps for more control over fate than we can ever have, but the film, which spans the time of pregnancy and birth, is also a courageous cathartic reckoning with the past that allows for psychological closure before a new stage of life begins.
A positive home pregnancy test and the cascade of emotions it brings plunges us immediately into the unmarried couple’s private life in the small city of Piatra as they face this momentous change and tell their close relatives, who are variously congratulatory and apprehensive. While Andrei is a documentarian, his partner Paula is an aspiring actress, and baring their innermost anxieties and dreams to the camera is second-nature to both of them — unlike Andrei’s father, who proves wholly more evasive and circumspect when pressed on his motivations and inner emotional landscape. Andrei takes the journey via Bulgaria and a ferry to visit his dad, now a monk known as Father Calinic, in a monastery on Mount Athos. The meeting is initially rather awkward, and a rupture to the monk’s routine of meditating, chores and prayers, and sitting alone on a bench in the evening looking at the moon and reflecting — a life he professes to be easier than the «confusion» he left behind in Romania. In an ossuary, one skull is imprinted with the phrase: «What I am, you will be; What you are, I used to be.» This call to a radical recognition of the ephemerality of worldly attachments does not fully impress the filmmaker, as the monastery is also couched as a place of psychic escape from one’s own impact on others. An ascetic hermit who lives there was once a sniper in the U.S. military; whether others have children as Andrei’s father does, he doesn’t know. One can easily subsist there, in other words, without addressing or even discussing the actions and ties of one’s past.
«What I am, you will be; What you are, I used to be.»
Though he returns from his first trip disappointed, Andrei does eventually receive some surprising revelations on a second visit and a reminder of the slipperiness of subjective perspective and memory. In addition to a rather different version of the family narrative, comes some advice not to sin by staying unmarried. Everybody has their own stories and rules as bulwarks against the universe’s grand unpredictability, it’s clear — while life comes and goes, regardless.