A novel milieu and an understated turn by Jack Jovcic, playing a mobster turned priest, give the otherwise dour Australian drama “Hidden Light” a fighting chance.
Writer-director Aaron Kamp set his story in the Serbian Orthodox community of Perth, Australia, folding the tragedies of two lives into that of our troubled, guilt-ridden priest, Jovan.
When we meet him, the burly man with the impressive tattoos is scourging his flesh, atoning for his life of drugs and violence. His mother is dying in hospital, and Jovan seems to figure his past and her fate are connected.
He’s the priest that the more streetwise members of the community come to for council. Drago (Troy Coward) is a highly-strung street dealer who knew Jovan in his previous life. Now, he’s got a pregnant girlfriend (Vivienne Marshall) and a motivation to get out.
Only his boss, Jovan’s old partner (Jag Pannu, who looks and sounds like a war criminal, which fits) won’t hear of it.
“I’ll get it sorted,” Father Jovan vows.
Big time real estate agent Jacob (Jeremy Levi) knows what Jovan used to be, as well. When he stumbles upon his wife’s body, dead from an overdose somebody she picked up in a bar gave her, he approaches the priest — “You used to know how to handle these situations…Someone needs to pay!”
Jovan is never more holy than in the simple, righteous and common sense question he poses with a single word — “Why?”
The priest might be able to solve both these problems by going to the police. Maybe it’s his vows that prevent him. Maybe it’s the vows he took in his previous life, “back when I WAS somebody,” that keep him from naming names.
These crises in others’ lives become Jovan’s dilemma, his cross to bear.
Kamp floods the score with dramatic music and fills the screen with a plot that advances like lava cooling off too fast to be a threat. The settings — a church, a bar, a drug lord’s apartment, a junkyard, and Jovan’s car.
That’s where he has the talk with a couple of longtime expats who knew his late father, back when they defended a monastery back in the old country together. They speak to him in the mother tongue, admonish him to do right — “You help people,” they say (via subtitles). “That’s what’s important.” And they may exist (in their native costume) wholly in Jovan’s bouncer-bald head.
Truthfully, the magical realism of the car chats with old Serbs are the only charming moments in “Hidden Light.” It looks right, at times, blazing sunlight through stained glass windows of a church. The bar scenes are lit like a teacher’s lounge. No wonder the chanteuse Amber (Sharyna Thompson) can’t draw a crowd. My favorite “We made this with no money” moment is Jovan, sitting down to dinner in front of a TV while the sound of the RADIO version of “The Lone Ranger” wafts out of it.
No tragedy is small to the person living through it, but these play like melodrama — the drug dealer looking to get out, the cuckolded, grieving husband hunting for review, the priest who wasn’t always pure and who still likes his wine.
The dialogue, like the situations and the strident score, can seem played out. Rare is the line that takes one by surprise.
“Don’t give me one of your lectures, Jovan! Not today!”
We don’t see how good the mobster is at preaching, a serious omission.
But Jovcic has a soulful quality, a big man who used to be a violent man, trying to honor his renunciation of that life, trying to help desperate people find peace, wondering what it will cost him in the process.
MPAA Rating: unrated
Cast:Jack Jovcic, Sharnya Thomson, Jeremy Levi, Troy Coward
Credits: Written and directed by Aaron Kamp. An Indie Rights/Small Voice release.
Running time: 1:31