“Priest” is a study of irony. In this controversial look at the modern Catholic church, those who do the “right” thing often get it wrong. Those who have the day-to-day plight of their parishioners most at heart often are at odds with church doctrine.
And those who so heedlessly adhere to that doctrine usually end up doing the most harm to the very followers they serve.
It should come as no surprise then that “Priest” has aroused a furor. The outcry forced Miramax Films, the arm of Disney Studios that is distributing the movie in the United States, to move it back from its original Good Friday opening date.
And, to be sure, some Catholics are going to be upset by all “Priest” has to say. After all, it has little good to say about the church itself. From the opening frames, Bird and screenwriter Jimmy McGovern portray church leaders as callous martinets who toss out those churchmen who are no longer useful, emphasize church dogma at the expense of people, encourage intolerance and exude hypocrisy.
As for the characters with whom we are supposed to sympathize, one is living with his housekeeper and the other is gay.
What’s interesting about “Priest” is that the film presents these situations straightforwardly. And, actually, for much of its run, it downplays the sexual natures of the protagonists and concentrates on another traditional church problem: the sanctity of the confessional.
Briefly stated, “Priest” involves Father Greg Pilkington (Linus Roache), a young cleric come to do his time in the urban harshness of northern England. He is assistant to Father Matthew Thomas (Tom Wilkinson), and no two men could be further apart.
Whereas Matthew is a classic liberal, filling his church with the sounds of South American musicians and preaching the need for tolerance, Greg is a by-the-book scholar: “There is only sin, Matthew,” he says. All the rest, he asserts, is illusion.
But Greg’s arrogance begins to crack as he is forced to face the effects of that “illusion” face to face. Doors get slammed in his face, his attempts to bring a sense of church sanctity to a drunken wake are ignored and, worst of all, he discovers that he hasn’t courage enough to face true evil when it rears its ugly head.
And that moment comes when, during confession, he learns a dreadful secret that involves raging sociopathy and the corruption of innocence.
It all adds up to a massive crisis of faith and, in Greg’s case, a public owning up to his own basic weaknesses and inherent hypocrisy.
The main problem with “Priest” is that, fueled with the righteous fervor of a “recovering” Catholic, it tries to do too much. The stirring hymn-like “When You Walk Alone,” for example, twice accompanies trying scenes of on-screen suffering.
And every possible argument for and against church rules, history and theological intent are examined, from both sides. A scene near the end even has two characters engaging in a duel of biblical scripture.
But there is a certain power to the process, especially in the hands of director Bird. Whether it is a furious father’s face framed in a confessional booth, two men lip-locking with passion or a grim-faced priest spouting Latin as if it were a curse, Bird’s camera smoothly captures the image.
And the acting is uniformly good, from both Roache and Wilkinson, of course, but also Cathy Tyson as the understanding housekeeper, Lesley Sharp as an unsuspecting mother, Robert Pugh as a father whose desires run to incest and Christine Tremarco as Lisa, a schoolgirl who suffers the worst kind of sexual betrayal that a child can face.
It is Lisa who, in the end, represents Father Greg’s chance at redemption. And that is fitting.
For when all is said and done about the “trappings of power,” obligations of office and personal culpability, it is the fate of the children that ultimately is at stake.
That, at least, is one thing we should all be able to agree on - without a hint of irony to foul the waters, holy or otherwise.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “Priest” *** Location: Magic Lantern Cinemas Credits: Directed by Antonia Bird, starring Linus Roache, Tom Wilkinson, Cathy Tyson, Robert Carlyle and Christine Tremarco. Running time: 1:43 Rating: R