Director: Joshua Lim
Screenplay: Joshua Lim
Producers: Joshua Lim, Nicola Exposito
Starring: Mark Cirillo, Javier Montoya, Eric Parker Bingham
Year: 2010
Country: USA
BBFC Certification: 15
Duration: 101 min

Ryan, a closeted gay seminary student in the midst of writing his thesis, struggles to reconcile the idea that love is a gift from God with the pain he experiences from his own romantic encounters. Joshua Lim's The Seminarian is a film that creeps up on you. A low budget, meditative, gay-themed film about the relationships between God and love and sexuality and religion, it's the sort of film that sets up several negative preconceptions from just a quick glance at the synopsis. Will 'low budget' really mean 'shoddy'? Will 'medatative' really mean 'pompous'? Does 'gay-themed' mean heterosexual audiences will be bored and does the religious theme mean atheists will lose interest or religious viewers will be offended? Frankly, preconceptions suck and anyone who can put them aside long enough may find something well worth discovering in this intriguing film.

Which isn't to say The Seminarian isn't flawed. Clearly working on a very low budget, Lim struggles to make much of the film as visually interesting as its script is engaging. The long, static shots of rooms one after another become wearing very quickly, particularly in the film's rather dull opening half hour. Visually, however, this isn't very cinematic material anyway and arguably the homemade feel ultimately brings the viewer closer to the characters as it often feels as if you could be watching a video you voyeuristically made yourself.

Unfortunately, the weak acting from most of the cast prevents the emotional engagement from reaching the levels such an emotion-centred script requires. This is The Seminarian's biggest flaw, since caring about these characters is crucial. Mark Cirillo, in the central role of Ryan, goes some way to compensating for this. His acting swings between adequate and moderately impressive, occasionally reaching peaks of genuine emotional engagement. But key relationships, particularly the one between Ryan and his mother, never convince because the other actors seem to be just reciting their lines aloud, focusing only on the act of recalling words and not on making them believable.

The saving grace of The Seminarian is undoubtedly Lim's thoughtful, multi-layered and delicately handled script. As I mentioned earlier, The Seminarian has a very slow, even excruciating, build up and for the first half hour I was often bored. However, things start to pick up considerably after that. Although the opening is undoubtedly slow, perhaps some of my boredom could be attributed to my incorrect assumption that I knew where all this was going. The pedestrian acting and direction lead me to believe the plotting would follow a similarly trite pattern and I was only too pleased to find myself proven completely wrong. As I said before, preconceptions suck! While some of the romantic subplots are telegraphed, Lim uses this to misdirect the audience from what is coming in other ones. Ultimately, the whole thing reaches a pleasingly open ended conclusion befitting of its unstereotypical portrayal of homosexuals, homophobes and religious devotees alike.

The film is structured around a handful of scenes in which Ryan meets with his professor to discuss his thesis. This allows Lim to openly chart the emotional effect the romantic storyline is having on his main character as we hear Ryan outline his constantly changing views on love and God. When the first of these scenes arrived I feared the worst. When films start spouting long, self-concious wodges of academic research in place of dialogue, I often find they become intolerably preachy and unrealistic (see Paul Haggis's Crash... Actually, don't!). But as The Seminarian went on and these punctuating scenes continued to appear, they seemed to make more narrative sense. Only when rambling essays are inserted into everyday situations do they seem out of place. Lim has pulled off the nifty trick of finding a narrative device that allows his characters to comment at length and realistically on the story without disrupting the world Lim has created.

While The Seminarian has a satisfying conclusion, greater satisfaction comes in considering the film after viewing it. While some will latch instantly onto the symbolic parallels, Lim refuses to hit the viewer over the head with them and instead gives them much to consider later once they've digested the plot. This kind of thoughtful viewer is who The Seminarian is aimed at, viewers who can put aside a film's technical shortcomings in order to appreciate its more cerebral qualities. I must confess I can't quite put aside the film's often distracting limitations enough to rate it more highly than I have but The Seminarian has ultimately given me much to think about and I'd be interested in seeing more of Lim's work in future, perhaps more so if he vacates the director's chair next time.

The Seminarian will be released on DVD by Breaking Glass UK on 22 October 2012. Special features are audio commentaries with the cast and crew, an interview with star Mark Cirillo and a Q&A session. Unfortunately none of these features were available for preview

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2 Responses

  1. David Brook

    I’m ashamed to say those preconceptions put me off from giving it a go after viewing the not-too-impressive trailer. Which is odd seen as I watch a lot of low budget films. I guess the low budget films I watch are genre films that don’t take themselves seriously. If a low budget film is trying to say something interesting or powerful and the performances and quality of the direction don’t match up to it then I switch off quite quickly.

    Reply
  2. Andy Goulding

    Don’t worry, the only reason I mentioned the preconceptions in the first place was that I approached the film with exactly the same feelings! To an extent I was pleasantly surprised but, as I said in the review, the lack of decent directions and acting are hard to compensate for.

    Reply

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