Priest (Antonia Bird, 1994)
[originally posted 16Oct2000]
What a flap this movie caused when it came out. The Catholic church hit the roof. And with good reason, too. Mother Church doesn’t seem to get too nasty over bad films.
Despite the fact that Antonia Bird has fallen permanently out of favor with this reviewer thanks to two hours of utterly wasted celluloid called Ravenous, she pulled off a wondrous little film here. Linus Roache stars as the title character, a conservative priest sent to a poor parish after the man he’s replacing goes a little batty (and rams the bishop’s door with the large cross over the church’s altar, one of the most blissfully funny opening scenes I’ve ever encountered in a film). Roache’s character, Greg Pilkington, is immediately at odds with the liberal priest who will be working alongside him, Matthew Thomas (Tom Wilkinson, one of many actors who wander in and out of this flick who appeared together again in The Full Monty). Fr. Thomas is a drinker, a lech, tends to look the other way about much in his parish, that sort of thing. Bird sets things up quite nicely as ‘good priest comes in and reforms parish screwed up by bad priest.’
Until, of course, Roache is confronted with two major disasters in a row—the revelation in confessional of a father’s molestation of his daughter, and his own homosexuality. Pilkington suddenly finds himself in the midst of an on-again-off-again love-hate affair with Graham (Robert Carlyle) while simultaneously trying to figure out whether to break the seal of the confessional and call the police about the father who’s molesting his kid. It’s complicated stuff, And Fr. Pilkington reacts in the ways that most humans would, and the great human tragedy turns another page.
All in all what I ended up comparing this to in my head time and again was Colors, Dennis Hopper’s brilliant film about an idealistic cop (Sean Penn) who eventually comes to understand his partner’s (Robert Duvall) attitude towards life. Bird treats her characters and situations with the same, and similarly unexpected, subtlety that Hopper achieves. They’re also both capped off with two of the finest ending scenes in the world of tragic cinema. I strongly suggest watching both, but I wouldn’t recommend doing so on the same night. **** ½