'Priest' is a liberal look at sins of the fathers

April 07, 1995|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

A great deal of controversy swirls around "Priest," but since I review movies and not controversies I'll pass on it. In any event, it shouldn't obscure the film or stand in anyone's way of approaching it.

A sturdy, well-acted but over-programmatic drama, it at least enjoys the power of the ideas with which it grapples. Is celibacy obsolete? Is the confessional sacred? Must priests be straight? What happens when one falls in love? What happens if he falls in love with a man? What is the church's role in the searing but intimate domestic agonies of our times, such as child abuse?

Set in and around an impoverished working-class parish in Liverpool, the film chronicles the relationship between two clerics -- one young, one old, one conservative, one liberal, one straight, one gay, one expressive, one repressed. If it fails as journalism, it never fails as drama, not with lines of conflict in it like that.

It does fail as journalism, primarily by slanting the issues in favor of the left. The dice of liberals are always loaded, I guess. Still, the other side of the arguments on these issues should have been fairly argued, rather than oh so airily dismissed with a righteous wave. The weight of that counter-argument would have given the film itself more weight.

As it is, "Priest" is but a level or two above that of an excellent TV movie. It shares with the TV movie the distressing tendency to cram every relevant pathology into two brief hours; thus "Priest" is so front-loaded with social issues that at times it feels as if it's going to explode.

Its anti-hero is young Father Greg Pilkington, hard-working, earnest, devoted, handsome, a perfect mother's son and a perfect Son's representative on Earth. He's played with brilliant intensity that masks more than a bit of self-loathing by Linus Roache, who will probably be made into a star by the ordeal. Father Greg's first surprise is that he's the conservative, not the older Father Matthew Thomas (Tim Wilkinson), who's been a thorn in the side of the bishop for many years as a guerrilla soldier against orthodoxy. When Father Greg preaches a sermon in which he warns members of his flock not to blame society for their problems but to take responsibility on their own, Father Matthew silently shudders.

Matthew's heterodoxy goes further, even further than working with tenants against landlords and the poor against the rich and with everybody against the bishop (who looks like the head of Doyle Dane Bernbach) -- he's openly living with the housekeeper, Maria (Cathy Tyson, of "Mona Lisa").

Matthew and Greg argue heatedly about celibacy, which Greg sees as orders from God and Matthew as simply a means for an ever-greedy institution to avoid property claims by widows. But Father Greg, as it turns out, is no mere Dittohead. One night, in a frenzy of anguish, he takes off his collar, gets on his bicycle and heads to the nearest gay bar.

For the heterosexually squeamish, the images of Father Greg and his friend Graham (Robert Carlyle) passionately kissing in the firelight and rumpling each other's hair may be a little hard to endure. Still, dramatically, the romantic iconography of the sexual depictions are an essential component of Father Greg's life -- they demonstrate how this seemingly most objective and disciplined of men is actually a frail vessel, easily rent by the vicissitudes of life.

And the vicissitudes are about to go ballistic. In confession, a girl blurts out that she's being sexually abused by a vicious father. Greg is torn. Should he violate the sworn privacy of the confessional by reporting the father? Should he pray harder and wait for God to work in his mysterious ways? Every earthly gambit he tries comes apart; finally, it seems that God does intervene and the situation is revealed. But the mother takes great offense at Greg's refusal to inform the authorities.

The movie takes this for granted. Still, the sacred privacy of the confessional is a key component of Catholicism, and one could just as easily construct a worst-case scenario that would prove it, rather than refute it; for example, if priests routinely go to the cops, Catholics would routinely stop going to confession. Jimmy McGovern's screenplay feels a little too glib here.

But worse lies ahead for Greg; he and Graham are arrested for having sex in public (a parked car, actually) and Greg is snared by terrible scandal. It takes a great deal of faith and self-forgiveness to get him through -- and support from the compassionate Matthew. But I kept thinking how much more interesting it might have been if the saintly, perfect Matthew actually were revealed to have a nasty little flaw, like homophobia. No such luck, and that simplicity is what keeps "Priest" from reaching the higher level of expression.

"Priest" is extremely well-acted and vividly written; director Antonia Bird keeps it whistling expertly along. If it feels too glib and smug by its end, at least it feels something, which is more than one can say about most films these days.

"Priest"

Starring Linus Roache and Tom Wilkinson

Directed by Antonia Bird

Released by Miramax

Rated R (sexual situations)

***

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