Priest is a movie with a message, and in spite of a complicated--perhaps overly complicated--plot, that message is a simple one: The Catholic Church should give up its doctrine of priestly celibacy. If Church hierarchy refuses to do this, individual priests should ignore the doctrine as they see fit.

I've heard a few secular critics complaining that what's wrong with Priest, aesthetically, is that it's not really a religious movie. If they mean that the film does not conform to the standards--the official standards, that is--of the Catholic Church, they're obviously right. The main character, after all, is Father Greg (Linus Roache), a repressed homosexual. Not long after we've heard Father Greg censuring his rectory mate, the socially conscious Father Matthew (Tom Wilkinson), for having a long-term monogamous relationship with the housekeeper (Cathy Tyson), we see him go cruising and furtively pick up a young man (Robert Carlyle, of Ken Loach's Riff-Raff).

Though the other priests we see in the film are, as far as we can tell, successfully celibate, none of them exactly qualifies as Francis of Assisi. The retiring priest (James Ellis) whom Father Greg is replacing in the poor Liverpool parish is an old boozer full of regrets. The bishop (Rio Fanning) is a frankly cold-hearted executive ("You can best serve God by pissing off out of my diocese"). The ancient spewer of Latin (Matyelok Gibbs) at the rural parish to which Father Greg is packed off when his sexuality comes out appears to be half-crazed.

Spokesmen for the Catholic Church tend to be more suave and less hysterical than those for fundamentalist denominations, but the Catholic response to Priest has been predictable. The film, they say, isn't "balanced," since we aren't shown a happy and contented yet fully observant priest. When religious leaders, and critics like Michael Medved (and even some with less obvious agendas), bemoan the absence of religion in modern entertainment media, what they are actually asking for, usually, is religious PR--the depiction of a blandly "wholesome" world like the Family Channel shows us, in which religion is, in fact, rarely mentioned, being taken as a given. A show like CBS' excellent Picket Fences, which regularly grapples with religious issues, is as likely to be protested as praised from religious quarters. It's true that Picket Fences, like Priest, is basically liberal in outlook, but that's because struggling too much with issues of faith is regarded suspiciously by religious conservatives--they, after all, have a Book with all the answers in it.

But if a religious dramatist need not be in agreement with dogma, then Priest seems to me more truly a religious film than, say, Going My Way. That is nothing much more than a buddy movie about a couple of twinkly Irish lads who happen to be priests. Indeed, Priest has the same kind of big, sentimental heart as Going My Way--I loved picturing Pat O'Brien as Father Greg, Bing Crosby as wise Father Matthew, and Barry Fitzgerald as the sad old retiree. And if you want to keep yourself up nights, picture O'Brien kissing Jimmy Cagney, as Father Greg's young pickup.

Really, screenwriter Jimmy McGovern and director Antonia Bird could probably be faulted for making Priest rather too parochial. It's doubtful that most laypeople, even if they're Catholic, care much whether or with whom their priest gets it on, as long as it isn't with an altar boy. Instead of deep spiritual truths, Priest delves into church policy.

Probably out of concern over this narrowness of scope, the filmmakers try to heighten the urgency with a subplot about a teenage girl who confesses to Father Greg that her father is molesting her. She won't do anything to help herself, and Greg is bound by confidentiality to keep it a secret.

Anyone who watches TV knows that variations on this plot are a cop-show standby. Indeed, at least one feature, 1987's The Rosary Murders, has used it. It's an unnecessary embellishment that both detracts from the anticelibacy thesis and pulls the film close to melodrama. If Priest has a big weakness, it's this digression. Still, there's a gutsy straightforwardness to the way that even these scenes are executed and acted that gets them across better than might be expected.

This is true of Priest in general. The writing and direction are conventional in technique, and clumsily didactic at times, but so impassioned that the movie gets to you. Under the opening titles, a disgruntled priest charges through the bishop's office window, using a huge crucifix as a battering ram. It may sound like too much, too self-conscious or gimmicky a visual punch. But it works--Bird makes you feel the anger under it, as does McGovern's hard, funny, argumentative, very speakable dialogue.

As does the acting. Roache even brings off Father Greg's most risky and difficult scene, ranting aloud to a crucifix hanging on his wall. Carlyle is touching as the young lover, and Lesley Sharp is smashing as the molested girl's mother. The real standout, however, is Wilkinson's Father Matthew, whom Bird and McGovern clearly intend as their ideal priest. The actor has the brains not to play him as a paragon. He gives this chubby, sweet-natured, fornicating lefty padre the right touches of smugness to keep him convincingly human.

The film's emotional forcefulness carries one past its lack of much intellectual rigor. Making their case, McGovern and Bird duly note that Christ never said that priests had to be celibate, and that the policy may have been inaugurated as a way of keeping the Church from economic responsibility for priestly widows. But when it comes to homosexuality, about which the Bible does have a few choice words, Priest quickly retreats to the usual defensive platitudes about judging not and not casting the first stone and such.

Just once, when some person of orthodox beliefs starts up--as Father Greg does to Father Matthew early on in the film--with that line about how they're just picking and choosing what parts of the Bible appeal to them, I'd love to hear this in response: "You're bloody well right I'm picking and choosing what appeals to me in the Bible, just as you and every other Christian do, because however great the Bible may be, not all of it is still applicable, and not all of it ever was, and you don't own it any more than I do, so God bless you and keep you out of my face."

Priest was originally slated to open on Good Friday, which seems to me an entirely appropriate occasion to open a film about a religious struggle. But Miramax eventually gave in to Church grumbling, and pushed the date back to Wednesday of the following week.

It's infuriating that religious groups are so often capitulated to when they complain about being offended. When do they ever show the slightest compunction about insulting or offending those without a faith, or the nondenominational faithful? Besides, Bird's film bears the imprimatur of a self-styled arbiter of wholesomeness that carries far more weight in modern society than any mere world religion. Don't forget who Miramax's corporate parent is--Priest is a Disney movie.


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