MPAA rating (or equivalent): R depiction of homosexual contact
Though I don't usually review films that are already out on video, the fact that a friend insisted that I see this and comment on it (it's one of her favorite recent films) together with the circumstance that I missed last week's only professional press screening, combined to give that option some appeal. Additional motivation came from an acquaintance on an email forum insisting that this film is anti-Catholic, anti-Christian, and is another reason to boycott Disney (whose Miramax division is the distributor, though the film was produced by the BBC).
Though this film tells the story of a young homosexual priest's conflict of conscience and an older, mentor-priest's affair with his housekeeper, it doesn't strike me or my friend (a former Catholic who has moved to the right in becoming Eastern Orthodox) as intended to attack the Roman Catholic church in particular or Christianity in general. There are homosexual priests (and ministers, and rabbis, for that matter), and there are priests who sleep with their housekeepers. Though neither are typical in the specific sense, neither are these presented as typical, nor does the denoument of this film in any sense denounce Catholicism or even the conservatives who, at least for now, control the Roman church. Literature is generally about the atypical; fiction always depends on conflict, and the best conflict is moral.
The Catholic Church is troubled, and this is part of the point here, but the fact that this is a British film set in Liverpool has less to do with the producers' antipathy toward Catholicism than that, in the British state church the issues of this film wouldn't even be considered controversial and, ergo, not worth a screenplay. For Anglicanism, by and large, at least as I perceive it, would shrug and say "gay priest? So what?" "A priest living in with an unmarried woman? Big deal?"
Linus Roache plays the young Fr. Greg, who at one critical point calls himself gay although, like many homosexuals, especially those desiring to be Christians, that adjective hardly applies. Though his mentor, Fr. Matthew (Tom Wilkinson) an old-fashioned liberal in both theology and politics, argues with some passion that compared to famine, war, and pestilence God is hardly likely to care what men do with their genitals and seems to make some points with the younger and more conservative priest, in the end Fr. Greg tells the congregation to whom he returns after a brief exile, "I came to ask your forgiveness." Unlike Fr. Matthew, he never tries to justify or rationalize breaking his vow of celibacy or sins of fornication, though the older priest's counsel does help him see the possibility of repentance and reconciliation, which is the movie's theme..
But I've told so much of this storyline because it is not the main source of conflict in Fr. Greg's life. In fact, his turning to homosexual activity is triggered, each time it occurs in the story, by the shattering of his idealistic standards and the realization that even the best Catholics he sees are less motivated by any desire to please or obey God than just a desire to get through, get by, usually with minimal expression of faith or devotion. This aspect of the film is reminiscent of a line in an earlier film with many parallels, Mass Appeal, in which Jack Lemmon plays the older mentor priest to a young idealistic seminarian who admits that he, too, once had liaisons with partners of both sexes. Lemmon says that as a 13-year-old turning to the church he "wanted everyone to be good." Like Fr. Greg, when he realized most people fall short of his standards, he began compromising.
Though I can understand why some Catholics will find Priest threatening, as a onetime campus minister who worked alongside liberal priests for many years, my take is that it is not at all far out of synch with the reality of the contemporary church. If these subjects interest you, by all means rent it. Better yet, make it a double feature and rent Mass Appeal, also; it is even a slightly stronger treatment of similar issues with, unlike Priest, a lot of laughs along with the pathos..
Photo © by the film's distributor
© 1997, Jon Kennedy