“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?” This Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn quote is recited twice in Paul Roland’s Exemplum. The phrase stands at the center of the writer/director’s philosophical mind throughout the thriller. Roland’s first feature has a lot to say — as well as a lot to think about — and is, in turn, a rather strong debut.
The film follows Father Colin (Roland), a young Roman Catholic priest who is infatuated with courting social media popularity through his church web series, eponymously titled Exemplum. However, when the obscure waters of internet stardom begin to shift his standing before the eyes of his superiors, Father Colin revolts, turning into a malicious hacker. He starts blackmailing one of the church’s wealthiest businessmen (Joseph Griffin).
The visual design is immediately striking. The film is shot in a slightly overexposed black and white with a focused 4:3 aspect ratio — without doubt, present are shades of Christopher Nolan’s Following. These aesthetic choices add a tangible feel of grainy realism to Exemplum, which helps guide and expand the lighting in every frame. Moments like seeing the priest’s face emblazoned in light are juxtaposed with images of other characters’ faces bathed in shadow. The visual language articulates a clear sense of each character’s humanity, fortifying the timeless quandary of good versus evil. Moreover, the style is reinforced by solid audio design, which utilizes liturgical sounds to create a thoughtful, pertinent ambiance.
“…Father Colin revolts, turning into a malicious hacker.”
And yet, its most important trait is that the film offers something utterly novel. The moral questions it raises are done in a way as oblique but as enthralling as its narrative. Further, the characters and the script are all well-realized, helping to create a beautiful nuance to the unfolding proceedings. However, while decently acted, Father Colin brings a streak of intense, often overwhelming brooding that creates slightly disjointed dialogue compared to the other characters.
This is amplified when Exemplum brings in its shadowy antagonist. While these two characters have their complexities, they are a touch overwritten, causing the subtlety of the themes to become disappointingly black and white. Subsequently, this casts the very idea of faith in condemnatory light, one with little recourse. And that is a place a film like this wants to avoid. Allowing the characters to move more fluidly through the ambivalence of their morality would have struck a much deeper chord with the higher concepts at play.
Still, to consider that Exemplum was made for less than $10,000 is to consider the clarity of the director’s vision. Roland has great expectations and, in large part, succeeds. The resounding cohesion between the narrative and aesthetics is noteworthy, even if, at times, the film is too eager — and thus too heavy-handed — in its execution. Nevertheless, despite its setbacks, the movie is a testament to the skill and potential of its director. Whatever Roland does next will surely be something to pay attention to.
"…a testament to the skill and potential of its director."