Moving and Uplifting
“Priest” is one of the most beautiful movies I have ever seen. Highly underrated and rarely seen, this is a classic film about the nature of intolerance and how understanding can bring people together. But be warned, you need tissues to watch this film. I remember when the movie was released it so riled the Catholic Church that it was banned in many places and somehow it managed to get on the screen for one showing in New Orleans until the Archbishop demanded its closure. Whereas New Orleans is a Roman Catholic city, this was not surprising but slowly bootleg copies made the rounds and may saw it and spoke of it. This is a movie that I cannot recommend highly enough.
“Priest” is the provocative story about the Roman Catholic Church in Liverpool, England. It appears as if it was meant to shock rather than be audience friendly or obsequious to the church. It has a lot to say about the certainty of dogma in the church, celibacy for priests and how to react when told of sexual abuse against a minor. It also deals with homosexuality in the priesthood. At times it seems to be a morality play when we see that a father has committed incest with his daughter but the church is unable to act and the we hear the condemnation of a priest because he has gay sex with a willing adult).
In a larger sense it questions the purpose of the Catholic Church, its dogmatic stand and its spiritual role in the modern world.
The strength of the film rests on its unswerving viewpoint and the challenge that it throws down to the church to confront those issues it has declined to face. The weakness of the film lies in its melodrama and its profiling of characters. Tom Wilkinson in an understated performance as Father Matthew Thomas and the voice of reason is amazing. Likewise the performance of Robert Carlyle as Graham, the gay lover of Father Greg Pilkington (Linus Roache) and the voice of sensual love is brimming with emotion and fine acting. Roache is the center and the focus of the film and he represents what happens when the church comes under attack and is rocked with inner conflicts.
Father Greg comes to a working-class parish and he is uptight and rigid in philosophy lacks humor in his own religious practice and is unable to see beyond the letter of the law. He is also certain that the church has the answers to all problems. When he sees that his superior is having an affair with the housekeeper of the rectory, he looks for an finds a new father figure who does not judge others and preaches about social causes and interprets church doctrine by breaking down definitions of right and wrong. Long and tedious, some of this could have been cut from the movie but it did show the double standard of the church in breaking the vows of celibacy—that a heterosexual priest can be discrete and get away with having a mistress while we learn later that
A homosexual priest cannot enjoy the same pleasure.
Filled with emotional turmoil and loneliness, Father Gregory emerges from the closet, puts on civilian clothing and goes to a gay bar. He meets Graham and spends the night making love to him but does not tell him that he is a priest. Sometime later Graham appears at his church (after having seen him as a priest) in the hopes of keeping the relationship going. About the same time Father Greg hears a confession from a teenaged girl that her father has been molesting her. The girl does not want him to do anything about this and he is trapped by a vow of silence and is unable to get the help that the girl so badly needs. It is at this point that the plotlines come together—two dilemmas confront the priest. But as the film begins to draw to a close Father Greg is the one to be judged as his parish members discover he is gay and he is asked by the bishop to leave his post. Father Greg has found a sense of redemption in his gay experience and he experiences the suffering that others have felt, he becomes more human and learns to love and accept others even if they do not measure up to the expectation of the church.
This film hits us hard as t looks seriously at some of the challenges and problems that face the clergy. The two priests in the film not only have their own inner demons but they also have to deal with the problems of society, the insensitivity of their superiors and the ethical problems of those in their parish.
All hell breaks lose in the film when the mother of the girl finds her being molested by her father and blames Father Greg for not stopping them. At almost the same time a photographer snaps a picture of the father in an uncompromising position in an automobile with Graham and published the photo in the local newspaper. Father Greg attempts suicide but is unsuccessful and is sent away. When Father Matthew finds him, he convinces him to come back to say mass with him.
The closing scene of the film is in the Liverpool church where Father Greg is confronted by an angry and homophobic mob of parishioners. In a split second the anger subsides when a surprising act of grace occurs and with it are swept away the pain and prejudice that preceded it.successful in having the film banned
“Priest” shows that forgiveness is one of the most distinctive marks of Christianity and there is no future for any church that disregards it. Forgiveness clears a space in time in which people can admit their failures and still reach out to each other in love. Further “Priest” states empathically that the church must be a place where variety and openness reign. In a divine milieu, forgiveness is cherished as the antidote to divisiveness and bigotry.
Obviously the heart and message of the church were in the right place, so much so that the Catholic League was successful enough to have the film banned. This is an in your face confrontational film, heavy with emotion and rails against the rigidity of the Roman Catholic Church. It will make you angry but it will uplift you in a way that you will feel so much better because you have seen it.