John Seven | Viewer's Discretion: 'The Churchmen' probes seminarians, the church

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'THE CHURCHMEN' (MHZ CHOICE)

I can't say I ever considered the life of ministers as a good backdrop for television drama, but like "Broken" and "Herens Veje," the French series, "The Churchmen," proves that it may be one of the best. The reason is simple — any good show focusing on a minister is going to be about the challenges of living up to the demands of the religion they serve, both in regard to their personal lives and also the politics and bureaucracy inherent in any church system. "The Churchmen" does this beautifully, bringing several stories together to show the expanse of drama at all levels of the Catholic Church.

Taking place in a Capuchin Seminary in Paris, "The Churchmen" follows five seminarians as they embark on their official spiritual journey, portraying their personal lives and experiences in their new roles, bluntly portraying their mistakes from which they try to recover and learn, as well as the weaknesses within them that cause more deliberate transgressions that conflict with their paths.

The dramas in "The Churchmen" also cover the heads of the seminary, the attending nun, the office of the monsignor and the Vatican, as it looks at the social issues that you would expect of such a show, with a lot of attention paid to the way the church looks at gay parishioners and the struggles of gay priests. The business side of running the Catholic Church also plays into the action, with the political drama of back-stabbing and clandestine deals tainting the administrative structure of the church at the higher levels. Ambition, as much as fealty to God, becomes the operating principle of the church's leaders.

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Temptation, though, is really at the center of the series — in the way you would imagine, but more importantly, the temptation to make yourself happy in terms that conflict with the expectations of the church. The question becomes whether the structure of the priesthood — and the lot of talented nuns, relegated to a lifetime of assistantship that doesn't take advantage of their strengths — is a productive one in the modern, and the characters in "The Churchmen" might well argue that change is needed.

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'ORIGIN STORY' (AMAZON)

Another in an impossible-to-resist parade of family secret documentaries, this one follows actress and writer Kulap Vilaysack, known for numerous appearances on popular sitcoms, and her quest to find her biological father.

Vilaysack grew up thinking that her stepfather was her biological father, but one night as a pre-teen, an argument in her house had her mother blurt out the truth. Years later, as she thinks of starting her own family, Vilaysack wants to find the missing piece in her personal puzzle, and it seems more crucial to her because of a continually dysfunctional relationship with her abusive mother, who is also saddled with a gambling addiction and has caused Vilaysack to no longer speak to her.

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But that's a reunion that has to happen in this quest, and Vilaysack starts that as she moves through the possible sources of information in her Laotian family. That's another area of interest the film provides — you learn a lot about Laotian culture and history, and specifically the hardships of Laotian immigrants. I'm not going to pretend that I knew a lot about any of that going into the film, and "Origin Story" is a great primer in that area.

But it's also a pretty raw, honest film about family relationships, and the way things on the inside might look different to people on the outside, the codes between family members that rankle but remain invisible to outsiders. And, thankfully, Vilaysack is able to juggle the hard emotional sections with a good sense of humor most of the time, making this a revealing, engaging personal diary made public.

John Seven is a writer in North Adams who has never been satisfied by movies and television that are easy to come by. He likes to do some digging. Find him online at johnseven.me.


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