Priest (United Kingdom, 1995)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The Catholic community's outcry against Priest has already begun, and it will doubtlessly become more intense before it abates. One of the most disturbing elements of any organized protest of this sort is that most of those involved will not have seen the picture in question. Another equally unfortunate byproduct is that, as was the case with The Last Temptation of Christ, the movie itself may get lost somewhere in the resulting polarization. If that happens, it will be a shame, because Priest has a lot to say, and doesn't deserve to be hamstrung by those who miss the point or have no idea what they're talking about.

The main character is Father Greg Pilkington (Linus Roache), a by-the-book, straightlaced Roman Catholic priest who is new to a rural parish in Great Britain. Father Greg is the sort who believes his job is to give moral advice, not act as a social activist -- a charge he levels against fellow priest Father Matthew Thomas (Tom Wilkinson).

While trying to serve his flock, however, Father Greg has his own personal demons to wrestle. Not only is he unable to keep his vow of celibacy, he breaks it with another man -- something many of his less-tolerant parishioners would surely view as an "abomination" if they learned of it. Even as he struggles with his sexual identity and its implications, Father Greg is forced to endure an additional crisis of faith when a fourteen year old girl (Christine Tremarco) comes to him under the seal of confession and admits to being sexually molested by her father.

There is nothing in Priest that hasn't appeared in recent newspaper accounts, which makes the Catholic League's opposition to the film somewhat ludicrous, not to mention hypocritical. Perhaps they feel threatened by Priest's depiction of men of the cloth as flawed human beings rather than as icons. Certainly, the men who don the collar here are not perfect, but neither are they lunatics, Epicureans, or devils.

Jimmy McGovern's script does an excellent job of dovetailing the two main elements of the film -- Greg's homosexuality and Lisa's sexual abuse -- into a compelling whole, often using unexpected bursts of humor to keep the level of tension from becoming too intense. Arguably, the more stirring story centers on the priest's battles with his conscience over how to help Lisa, but this film wouldn't have the same emotional resonance without the other pieces. In fact, the final scene incorporates several threads into a moment that, while perhaps a little overdone, is nonetheless powerful.

Priest addresses both social and religious themes. At its core, however, is the question of absolute certainty versus faith. There is, of course, no answer to most of the questions that Greg agonizes over, but these -- such as how Christ could expect him to keep silent when that silence condemns a girl to continued suffering -- are presented for the audience's consideration. It is by his reaction to the issues that Greg's true character is slowly revealed. It doesn't take long for us to realize that our first impression of the man is as false as his facade.

Linus Roache gives a multi-layered portrayal of Father Greg, presenting a character we can accept equally as a spiritual advisor and as the tortured man beneath the collar. Tom Wilkinson is more understated, but no less real, at Father Matthew, the older priest who accepts Greg's confidences without judging him. Christine Tremarco is chillingly believable as Lisa, and Robert Pugh radiates menace as her father -- a man who gives a horrifyingly logical explanation for his activities.

Provocative films like Priest rarely arrive without creating some sort of controversy. By not compromising her vision (which is similar to that of fellow British film maker Ken Loach), director Antonia Bird has fashioned a picture that not only stirs up a hornet's nest of timely and volatile spiritual issues, but faces up to homosexuality and incest with a frankness which few films dare. Priest is effective not only because of all the ground it traverses, but because the final turn brings closure without excess.

Priest (United Kingdom, 1995)

Director: Antonia Bird
Cast: Linus Roache, Tom Wilkinson, Cathy Tyson, Robert Carlyle, Christine Tremarco, Robert Pugh, Lesley Sharp, James Ellis
Screenplay: Jimmy McGovern
Cinematography: Fred Tammes
Music: Andy Roberts
U.S. Distributor: Miramax Films
Run Time: 1:40
U.S. Release Date: 1995-03-24
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1