|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 07 September 1999|
For a little movie, "Priest" certainly caused a big commotion when it was released in the U.S. in 1995. The alliance between Walt Disney Co. and Miramax Films was fairly new at the time, so Disney must have been especially startled when "Priest," a low-budget British acquisition, drew the wrath of a number of Catholic organizations, who made their displeasure known not only to distributor Miramax but also to parent company Disney. Miramax subsequently grew a couple of other arms to shield Disney from this sort of flak, but seven years later, it’s still easy to see what all the brouhaha was about.
No one can accuse the makers of "Priest" of a failure of nerve. The film’s protagonists are two very different Catholic priests ministering to a parish in contemporary working-class Liverpool, England. Young Father Greg (Linus Roache), new to the area, is idealistic, conservative and disapproving of the older, less traditional and ardently leftist Father Matthew’s (Tom Wilkinson) calls for social activism from the pulpit. As dismayed as he is by Matthew’s politics, Greg is even more appalled to discover that Matthew is sleeping with their mutual housekeeper, the lovely Maria (Cathy Tyson). However, this is soon the least of the challenges to Greg’s conscience. A 14-year-old parishioner tells of being sexually abused by her unrepentant father, and Greg does not know how to help the girl without breaking the seal of the confessional. Meanwhile, Greg’s sexuality leads him into temptation, discos and finally the bed of Graham (Robert Carlyle), a sweet-natured local who, to the priest’s chagrin, quickly pegs Greg as a fellow Catholic.
On the one hand, it can be argued that "Priest" is innately pro-Catholic, since the main characters’ lives are immersed in their faith. It’s not belief in Christ (although Matthew is an agnostic), but rather the authority of the Church that the film questions. Indeed, much of Greg’s turmoil comes from the fact that he’s sincerely trying to live by Christ’s example, even though he feels that, as a fallible mortal, he’s at a disadvantage in this attempt. However, Jimmy McGovern’s script is vehement in its condemnation of certain Church rules, from emphasis on celibacy to the absolute secrecy of confession and even to what happens to priests judged too old or ineffectual to continue. This kind of criticism likely prompted a good deal of agitation. Director Antonia Bird also stages some remarkably steamy and tender sex scenes between Greg and Graham (notably in Chapter 6) that can be seen as either utterly engaging (if one is open to erotic romanticism) or utterly disturbing (if one feels strongly that priests shouldn’t be depicted this way in movies).
Writer McGovern is one of the best scriptwriters working in England today, having crafted (among many other things) the incisive psychological thriller series "Cracker" and social docudramas like "Hillsborough" (about a fatal soccer riot) and "Sunday" (concerning the events surrounding the infamous "Bloody Sunday" in Northern Ireland). McGovern’s way with dialogue is one of the principal reasons to watch "Priest," which shows off his customary gift for scathing, articulate insight and wonderfully human, contrary characters. What McGovern doesn’t provide here is a sense of balance. He makes a good case (at least, to a non-Catholic reviewer) that the compassionate Father Matthew and the innately decent if very judgmental Father Greg are suited to their vocation, but there’s not one active cleric here who’s depicted as both a good man and a rule-abiding priest. Surely not every last adherent to celibacy is as mean-spirited as the church authorities shown in "Priest" and surely there’s some defense to be made of the sanctity of confession?
Sadly, the DVD contains no supplemental material of any kind – a history of reaction to the film would have been extremely intriguing – but interviews printed elsewhere reveal that "Priest" was originally intended as a four-hour miniseries rather than a 90-minute feature, so it’s quite possible that many nuances were sacrificed for length, but it might have been interesting to hear why neither Matthew nor Greg will consider taking up the ministry in a Christian denomination that more readily reconciles faith and sexuality. There is a tantalizing suggestion that Greg, agonizingly unable to live up to his own rigid standards, is purposefully trying to "damn" himself by engaging in activities he cannot condone. The film obviously doesn’t share Greg’s dim view of his actions – Carlyle’s well-played Graham may well be the sanest person in the film. Roache is believable both in Greg’s outwardly repressed state and his inner fervor, while Wilkinson mixes hearty warmth with just a dose of high-handed self-satisfaction as Matthew.
The surround sound is extremely good, especially given that there are no directional effects. A window breaking is loud, but not catastrophically so, in Chapter 2, which also has a ticking clock so soft but vivid that at first it seems to be some sort of mechanical problem coming from somewhere in the listening environment – don’t panic, it’s just the soundtrack. Chapter 3 has rich room ambience in a full karaoke bar, and Chapter 5 likewise creates a lifelike, encompassing feeling in a crowded interior. In an emotional sequence in Chapter 13, the audio track creates a particularly effective moment as the normal environment fades down, replaced by the sound of a pulse, indicating a character’s mental isolation. Chapter 14 provides another made-you-look-round-the-room sound effect with a realistic smoke alarm.
Picture quality is often lovely, with shots that are distinct in low light. Chapter 11 has a gorgeous, painterly shot of a seaside at dusk, awash in browns and grays, and Chapter 23 has a beautiful winterscape with well-modulated whites (although this chapter has two print splotches that linger for part of a scene on one side of the frame).
"Priest" is a more than a bit didactic, but it is also an intelligent, well-acted, wickedly verbal and engrossing drama that discusses its subject in a manner not often heard in feature films.