Onur Tukel’s pandemic-set film reveals human truths
Set during the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic in the summer of 2020, Scenes from an Empty Church is immediately distinctive as a snapshot of COVID culture that’s already unrecognizable, despite most of us having lived through it.
Father Andrew (Kevin Corrigan) narrates a borderline post-apocalyptic New York City. He notes with concern that Father James (Thomas Jay Ryan) refuses to let anybody into their church and obsessively disinfects the pews anyway. Per CDC guidelines at the time, people also seem far more paranoid about wearing masks outdoors than indoors, despite us now knowing that the risk factors actually go the other way around.
But then much of Scenes From An Empty Church is frank discussion about what COVID-19 guidelines, social or otherwise, are or should be. In a pro-science vs. anti-science world, it’s a bit of a shock to see characters freely discuss topics that have long felt verboten in mixed company. Father Andrew’s old friend Paul (Max Casella) openly criticizes masks because they make it hard to see facial expressions. The infamous 7 p.m. cheer becomes a topic of serious discussion, with some characters describing it as a public nuisance.
What makes Scenes from an Empty Church feel so remarkable is, somewhat perversely, the fact that it’s so unremarkable. The normal, human conversations about COVID-19 etiquette from the movie are shocking for a couple of reasons. For one, films haven’t yet featured such conversations. But even more surprisingly, these talks are terribly polite. It’s quite a departure from the more aggressive exchanges that dominate social media, despite being much closer to COVID-19 discourse as we know it in the real world.
SCENES FROM AN EMPTY CHURCH ★★★★ (4/5 stars)
Directed by: Onur Tukel
Written by: Onur Tukel and Andrew Shemin
Starring: Kevin Corrigan, Thomas Jay Ryan, Max Casella
Running time: 98 min.
When the leading threesome begins planning to reopen the church on a limited basis, the natural spiritual succor of the subsequent conversations with parishioners is unmistakable. The pandemic hasn’t necessarily made people lonely and desperate. It’s clear that most of these characters had personal emotional problems even before it started. But the pandemic worsened their mental state, and it’s also clear how just being able to talk to other people is doing wonders for everyone’s sanity.
Love letter to NYC
Scenes from an Empty Church is also a distinct love letter to New York City as a concept, one that feels particularly relevant following a mayoral primary where multiple candidates were disparaged for not being “real” New Yorkers. The movie shows that there isn’t really any such thing as a “real” New Yorker. The whole mystique of the city is that it’s a melting pot featuring people from wildly varying backgrounds and motivations, all forced into one place. We see that characters lose their sense of self in part because they stop talking to each other. They gain by restarting the lost art of conversation.
There’s also a very nice progression from more mundane discussion about pandemic politics to explicitly weirder territory, including conspiracy theories and astral projection. One character in particular feels comically New Yorkish, in part because she speaks very sincerely about wanting to leave the city. Large cities are inherently transient locations, which is why it feels so forced and suffocating for no one to be able to move around freely.
Depending on close you are to the pandemic, or how personally affected, Scenes from an Empty Church may feel too soon. But I think it’s coming at just the right time, before we mythologize the historical as something epic. In reality, the biggest change COVID-19 made to our lives was on the personal level, and director Onur Tukel brilliantly captures that.