What are we to make of "Priest"? Created for British television, it arrives on American theatrical screens laden with all the plaudits an extensive tour of the world's festivals can bestow on it, from audience awards to standing ovations. And, to a limited extent, it deserves them.
But the harder truth about "Priest" is that it is also an unintentional sham that offers the trappings of reality without its essence, a well-meaning film most adept not, as it likes to think, at grappling with difficult subject matter but at making viewers feel good about themselves.
Certainly "Priest" gets points for staking out so many of Catholicism's incendiary areas that the filmmakers hope even the Pope will be impelled to watch. The torments of a homosexual priest, the regrets of a non-celibate heterosexual colleague, the nightmare of incest, the agony of wanting to break the inviolate seal of the confessional to right a terrible wrong, all get an airing. Bing Crosby in "Going My Way" this is definitely not.
But although there is a danger of making "Priest" seem less involving than it is, the film's take on most of these issues is depressingly simplistic and predigested. Having determined to wade into this great dismal swamp of material, screenwriter Jimmy McGovern and director Antonia Bird haven't been able to resist compulsively tidying it up. All the film's emotions and motivations are neatly boxed and labeled; everything possible, in fact, is done to make it easy for audiences to feel they're on the side of the angels.
"Priest" begins with the forced retirement of an elderly cleric, who, in a typically theatrical gesture guaranteed to get our attention, responds by ramming a life-size crucifix through the window of his bishop's study.
Coming in as a replacement in the poor Liverpool parish of St. Mary's is Father Greg Pilkington (Linus Roache), a young man eager, in the bishop's cynical words, "to do his bit for the inner city." Quite handsome in a boyish way, Father Greg causes a bit of a stir when he arrives and immediately gets into a philosophical spat with fellow priest Matthew Thomas (Tom Wilkinson).
Father Matthew is a recognizable type, a progressive, socially conscious cleric who keeps a large photo of Sitting Bull around and sees himself as a focus for change. Father Greg, by contrast, is traditional, conservative and more than a little self-righteous, believing that moral guidance is the sole reason for a priest's existence.
Who can doubt but that this officious prig is going to have to be taken down a peg or two and learn some lessons in humanity and humility. And, soon enough, Father Greg gets his first taste when Maria (Cathy Tyson), the parish housekeeper, makes the kind of carefully reasoned yet off-the-cuff speech about her questionable private affairs that no one could manage in real life.
This kind of platform speaking turns out to be typical of the way "Priest" allows its characters to behave. Even the parishioner who practices incest speaks out on his own behalf with such an articulate position paper on the subject that you half expect him to hand Father Greg a sheaf of footnotes when he's finished.
"Priest's" subplot about incest, which is as arbitrary as it sounds, is the film's weakest, most schematic area. Is it really necessary to have the symbolic fires of hell (in the form of a trash can blaze) flaming over the malefactor's shoulder when he talks, or have his daughter's carefully constructed game of building blocks collapse when he enters the room? The restraint practiced by the powerful and austere "The Boys of St. Vincent," a TV movie from Canada that also deals with scandals within the church, would not have been out of place here.
What humanizes Father Greg most, however, is having to deal with the difficulties inherent in being a gay priest, and this is where the film is at its strongest and most convincing. Star Linus Roache, a veteran of British TV and theater, creates a quiet and believable portrait of a man torn between his spiritual vocation and his sexual behavior.
But balanced against this is "Priest's" determination to confirm its viewers' core prejudice, that all the world's troubles come from the way other people, never us, act out of narrow-mindedness and prejudice. If we in the audience were faced with the problems shown on screen, tolerance and understanding surely would be the orders of the day.
Aside from its obvious flaws, that kind of thinking makes "Priest" increasingly unrealistic. The difficulty with reality, which "Priest" is unable to come to grips with, is not so much that obviously bad things happen to obviously good people but that the lines are often more blurred than clear-cut, the consequences of behavior not nicely tied up with a ribbon.
Subtlety, nuance and the willingness to let audiences experience uncertainty would be necessary for this film to be as courageous as it sincerely believes it is. But, given the state of movie audiences, if it had those qualities, all those standing ovations would be a lot less likely.
* MPAA rating: R, for depiction of mature themes involving sexuality. Times guidelines: a scene of men making love.
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'Priest' Linus Roache: Father Greg Pilkington Tom Wilkinson: Father Matthew Thomas Cathy Tyson: Maria Kerrigan Robert Carlyle: Graham James Ellis: Father Ellerton Lesley Sharp: Mrs. Unsworth Robert Pugh: Mr. Unsworth Released by Miramax Films. Director Antonia Bird. Producers George Faber, Josephine Ward. Executive producer Mark Shivas. Screenplay Jimmy McGovern. Cinematographer Fred Tammes. Editor Susan Spivey. Costumes Jill Taylor. Music Andy Roberts. Production design Raymond Langhorn. Art director Sue Pow. Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes.
* In limited release.