Your hooey detector will probably start beeping about 10 minutes into British filmmaker Antonia Bird's controversial melodrama Priest when Father Greg (Linus Roach), a young man of the cloth newly transferred to a blue-collar Liverpool parish, rises to address his congregation. These days, he complains from the pulpit, we are too eager to blame our personal moral failures on "society" rather than accepting responsibility for them ourselves.
Cut to his boss, a middle-aged liberal socialist named Father Matthew (Tom Wilkinson), looking decidedly put out; in one sermon, Father Greg has contradicted everything the older priest has been telling his parishioners for the past couple of decades. Father Matthew is a righteous but deeply flawed man--a hypocrite, actually, considering that he swore an oath of celibacy but has been carrying on an affair with his housekeeper (Cathy Tyson) for some time now.
Father Greg, in contrast, at first seems to be without moral blemish. He's energetic, eloquent, polite, empathetic, and cute as a button. Of course, no film that's sold by its distributor as a bold work of muckraking art could possibly let a young conservative exist without harboring a deep, dark, embarrassing secret.
And sure enough, within a few short scenes, Father Greg is temporarily shelving his priestly garb and donning a spiffy leather jacket to visit a local gay bar, where he picks up a sad-eyed young man and proceeds to his flat for some surprisingly matter-of-fact sex. The repressed hypocritical moralist is one of the oldest stock characters in movies--part of a rogues' gallery of types that includes the streetwise nun, the burned-out lawman a week away from retirement, the whore with a heart of gold, and the dark-skinned shaman who hangs around the soulful white hero to provide spiritual guidance. When Father Greg is revealed as an ideological cliche, a promising drama turns into agitprop before your very eyes.
Not that Priest pretends to be anything else. Most of the time, it comes at you like the outraged padre in the picture's baffling, dreamlike opening sequence: rushing the camera, wielding a giant cross like a battering ram, and screaming. Even in quieter moments, the film's images, situations, and argumentative strategies feel loaded and simplistic. For instance, as critic Roger Ebert pointed out, the script assumes from the get-go that celibacy is an unrealistic thing to ask of a priest, then proves its own point by making its two main characters sexually active--a blatant example of dramatic cheating.
The film takes other points for granted, too, and each time, it cuts itself off from a dramatic avenue that might have been fascinating to explore. An example can be found in the way the picture deals with the sanctity of the confessional, where immoral deeds and thoughts are supposed to remain a secret between the confessor, the priest, and God. But what happens when a confession reveals a situation that's not just immoral, but illegal?
Father Greg faces this question when a 14-year old girl (Christine Demarco) tells him that her dad is molesting her. Talk about damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't: confronting the man would mean violating the sanctity of confession, but to remain silent would be tantamount to complicity. It's an awful situation, and Father Greg is such a sensitive fellow that it's tearing him up inside. In a passionate, darkly funny monologue addressed to a crucifix hanging on his wall, he rages at the contradictions of his job. "I know what you'd do!" he cries to the tiny, wooden image of Jesus. "You'd tell!"
Unfortunately, Father Greg's predicament is made ridiculous by the appearances of the molested girl's father (Robert Pugh), first during Sunday services, where he threatens the young priest, then later at confession. His porcine face rendered shadowy and demonic by the latticework separating himself from Father Greg, the man reveals that he's no garden-variety sicko. He's so evil that he's actually taken the time to compose a personal manifesto about incest which he views as a nihilistic repudiation of one of society's most hypocritical taboos. His screed sounds like a letter Peter Lorre's "M" might mail to Penthouse Forum.
The scene is a spectacular miscalculation, but one all too familiar to viewers who've been disappointed before by films that pinned monstrously complex social problems on a single cartoonish bad guy. It also calls attention to plot holes that the screenplay has no interest in filling. (How could the girl's mother have been oblivious to the situation if her husband walks around glowering and pontificating like a second-rate James Bond villain? Does the sanctity of confession cover threats against a priest's safety?)
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But when the characters in Priest are allowed to act like real human beings, the film is a compelling yarn that discusses issues of faith, morality, and politics with refreshing enthusiasm. Screenwriter Jimmy McGovern displays a fine ear for blue-collar Liverpool vernacular and a knack for leavening heavy patches of sermonizing with well-placed dollops of irreverent humor. (My favorite comes when Father Greg tells Father Matthew that the local archbishop has forbidden him to return to the parish because gay priests aren't welcome there. "Bugger him!" declares Father Matthew, then adds, "Er...not literally.") It's a script Paddy Chayefsky, the haranguing hellraiser behind Network, would have been proud to put his name on: it's one-sided, maudlin, and vulgar, but thrillingly alive.
Better still is the cast. As the tortured Father Greg, Linus Roache makes an ideological straw man into something approaching a three-dimensional character, using his wary eyes, soft voice, and thin, pale face to communicate shifts in emotion that a lesser actor might have overplayed. Tom Wilkinson manages to find the heartache and humor in Father Matthew's self-righteousness, painting a convincing portrait of a man who's aware of the worst life can offer yet refuses to let this knowledge paralyze him. And the supporting cast is terrific, too, from the smarmiest church-empowered bureaucrats down through the most disloyal and faithless parishioners.
Ultimately, the film seems less a deliberately provocative satire in the spirit of Jonathan Swift, Kurt Vonnegut, and Ken Kesey than an imprecise attempt to address real-world problems through the prism of aggressively sentimental melodrama. (Although an image of an emotionally overwhelmed Father Greg going down on his boyfriend in a parked car was probably too aggressive; it's less reminiscent of Swift than a Catholic-baiting joke from "Dave Allen at Large.") Even when the picture stumbles--and it stumbles so frequently and obviously that you can practically hear the filmmakers knocking things over--it's hard not to admire its fearlessness. Courage is a rare sight in movies these days, and Priest has plenty, even if it has absolutely no clue what to do with it.
Priest. Miramax. Linus Roache, Tom Wilkinson, Cathy Tyson. Script by Jimmy McGovern. Directed by Antonia Bird. Now showing.