Romans was the first film I saw at EIFF this year – back on the 21st June; but it was embargoed until early July and unfortunately fell down my review schedule. It’s surely testament to the vision of the Shammasian Brothers that the experience I had on that day is still as fresh in my mind as ever. Raw, blistering, and meaningful, Romans is a triumph.
With earth shattering force, an industrial hammer strikes the base of a marble cross in a dilapidated church. Seconds later the wielder, Malky (Orlando Bloom), is having anal sex with his on-off girlfriend (Janet Montgomery) in the basement of her pub. It’s an audacious, shocking, and layered opening to a movie that certainly pulls no punches. A bit much, perhaps, for 9am on a Wednesday morning – but certainly a wake-up call.
Malky was, as becomes immediately apparent, abused as a child by a priest. As a result, he’s become ghostly in adulthood: remote, quiet, and at times violent. He has a turbulent history with his mother (Anne Reid), an unhealthy relationship with his love interest, and displays disturbingly abusive tendencies to himself. Malky returns to his hometown to dismantle the church he was once assaulted in (he’s a demo-man). But, as the result of some tragic cosmic coincidence, his abuser arrives too – hailed as a local hero, and visited in the town’s new church by large congregations of admirers as a messianic figure.
As I mentioned earlier, the Shammasian Brothers aren’t afraid to play it rough, and Romans gets real rough real quick. There are horrific revelations on the part of the audience, heart-breaking scenes of loss, and stunningly brutal violence. An overwhelming atmosphere of chaos and carnage lies over the whole affair – as if Malky’s tortured soul is trying against the odds to break free of the past. Pressing questions are asked on the nature of faith, parenthood, love, friendship, and sacrifice with the precision and damage of a drunk man wielding a scalpel. It’s a film that acknowledges life in its messy, dirty depths – not just a process that yields uneasy answers, but a process than yields uneasy questions: organic, moody, and real.
Bloom’s performance is nothing short of revelatory. To play a character this complex – someone who teeters between abhorrence and saint-like behaviour – you need to be a master actor. After the Pirates of the Carribean movies, it’s become easy to disregard him as an unwieldy performer, but here that’s shown to be a fallacy. There’s a sense that Bloom is Malky – rather than just playing Malky: something magical that can’t quite be put into words, but that’s definitely noticeable to the viewer.
Much like Calvary, Romans transcends its religious trappings and ascends into cinematic nirvana. As it hurtles with biblical force into an almighty shocker of a third act, one might wonder if the means justified the end; but the answer appears, overwhelmingly, to be yes. In a brutal, uneasy, and tough watch, the Shammasian Brothers have crafted a character study of life on edge – shattered dreams, wasted time, and dubious decisions. It may be relentless, and it may lack resolution other than bloody catharsis, but it asks the kind of questions that you’ll be thinking about for weeks afterwards.
Featured image: Cinematographie.