For reasons which escape me, the new movie "Priest" has made the hierarchy of the Catholic Church far more nervous than "The Boys of St.Vincent", a recent prime time telecast on the Arts and Entertainment network. There were no effective role models on that disturbing study of sexual abuse and its subsequent cover-up by Catholic brothers in a Canadian orphanage for young boys. No clergy member in "Priest" remotely approaches the evil villainy of St. Vincent's Brother Lavin, chillingly played by Henry Czerny.
Antonia Bird's new film reveals the ongoing moral dilemma faced by many Catholic priests today and suggests that the Church remains stubbornly out of touch with the tormented souls it professes to care for. Father Greg (Linus Roache} is a young Catholic priest, determined to play by the book. "Sin is sin", he snaps at Father Matthew (Tom Wilkinson) when he discovers that the latter is sleeping with Maria the housekeeper (Cathy Tyson). But both Father Matthew and Maria are unrepentant about their living situation & tell Father Greg to mind his own business.
For Father Greg, that includes a secret life in gay bars where he picks up Graham. (Robert Carlyle). It also includes self-doubts about the secrecy of the confessional when Lisa, a fourteen-year-old parishioner tells him about her incestuous father. (Here's a tip for kids watching the film who are lucky enough to find a sympathetic priest who'll listen to their complaints about parental sex and /or violence: if you tell them outside of the confessional, great priests-and they do exist-can do something to help.) Father Greg feels powerless about his lover, especially when Graham shows up in Church on Sunday for Communion, and about Lisa, especially when her sociopathic father threatens him.
Filmmakers before Bird (including Alfred Hitchcock with "I Confess" and Mike Hodges with "A Prayer for the Dying") have had difficulty explaining the secrecy of confessional to general audiences. But Father Greg, for all of Linus Roaches' fine acting, would be dim about his life choices even if he weren't a priest. E.G.: If you want to have a private sex life AND be a dogmatic theologian, don't have sex on a public beach. It all gets very melodramatic after that, and except for the sanity and compassion of Tom Wilkinson's Father Matthew who gets all the film's best lines, "Priest", unlike "The Boys of St. Vincent" never quite escapes its television origins. But it asks some searching questions, many at least as agonising as those raised by Peter, the Church's first Pope, on a grim Good Friday almost two thousand years ago.
Copyright 1995 Monica Sullivan
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