Priest: Timely and Audacious

Celibacy and Its Discontent

In Priest, the timely and audacious feature debut, British filmmaker Antonia Bird probes not one but two taboos: homosexuality within the Catholic Church and the way priests handle a problematic issue like incest in their community.

Father Greg Pilkington (Linus Roache), the drama’s hero, is a young, handsome priest who finds his conventional training challenged by his new parish in working-class Liverpool. Greg encounters his first surprise in the outspoken Father Matthew Thomas (Tom Wilkinson), head of the parish, who preaches politics from the pulpit and lives openly with his housekeeper (Cathy Tyson). Shocked by this renunciation of celibacy, he grows increasingly uncomfortable as he tries to impose traditional religious values on the difficult lives of his parishioners.

A tearful confession of a young girl, who reveals an incestuous relationship with her father, launches a deep moral crisis. Bound by his vow of confessional silence, Greg realizes how powerless he is in helping her.

The central drama, though, is Greg’s own identity crisis, which unfolds in an unexpected manner. One evening, stripping off his collar, pulling on his blue jeans and retrieving a black leather jacket from the back of his closet, he heads for the local gay bar. Before long, Greg finds himself in the throws of passionate sex with a good-looking stranger.
Deeply confused by his own “deviant” attachment and his failure to help his needy parishioners, Greg becomes a tormented soul in desperate need for moral redemption in a bureaucratic context that is callous and impersonal.

Topical, Priest is a provocative film inhabited by characters grappling with moral dilemmas in very recognizable and realistic ways. With its highly impassioned tale, the film transcends the earnest weight of its subject through the sympathy it displays for the predicament of its characters. Each figure is a real-living person, torn by conflicting expectations and contradictory feelings; even the rigid priests are not one-dimensional.

Father Matthew’s thoughtful challenge to the “straight jacket” of the Catholic Church is quite effective, but it represents just one highlight in a film that displays a rarefied maturity as well as inquisitive urge not to accept the status quo, but challenge–and hopefully change–it.

Priest was originally commissioned as a four-hour mini series by the BBC, which later decided to abort the project. Jimmy McGovern, who based his script on a true case, then compressed his screenplay into a tight, feature-length narrative.

A former stage and TV director, Bird stands for a brand of passionate filmmaking that is concerned with timely social issues. It’s to her credit that the film’s weighty themes are treated seriously yet with a sense of humor–and tasteful discretion. In the hands of a less compassionate director, Priest might have easily become overly sappy and sentimental.

Still, in its effort to understand and humanize all of its characters and make its issues palatable to the large public, Priest’s tone becomes progressively melodramatic, with too many big climactic scenes and raw emotions that always seem on the verge of explosion.

Accomplished and creditable acting compensates for the script’s shortcomings. No doubt, the drama would have been less forceful if the title role would have been played by an actor less handsome and sexually alluring than Roache. But this is a minor concession for a film that personalizes political issues with emotional impact, resulting in a poignant story that is greeted with standing ovations–and genuine tears–in every film festival it has played.

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