June 2024

Priest (1995)

DIRECTOR: Antonia Bird


Linus Roache, Tom Wilkinson, Robert Carlyle, Robert Pugh, Christine Tremarco, Lesley Sharp, Cathy Tyson


It is a not uncommon experience for me to happen across some older independent film I had only fleetingly heard of or not heard of at all, that turns out to be underrated and worthy of more recognition than it received.  Priest is not a “great” movie, but it is an intelligent and thoughtful drama that provides some food for thought and a serious examination of themes involving homosexuality (and to a lesser extent sexuality in general), celibacy, incest, and religion, and how they relate to and conflict with each other.

Our central protagonist is Father Greg Pilkington (Linus Roache), a by-the-book, sober young Catholic priest who arrives in a small parish in semi-rural England, where he will serve alongside the older, established Father Matthew Thomas (Tom Wilkinson).  Neither Greg nor Matthew is an evil or poorly-intentioned man, but they instantly clash over their approach and their interpretations of their job, with the reserved, somewhat uptight Greg frowning on the easygoing, jovial Matthew’s casual style and disapproving of his liberal political agenda.  Greg sees Matthew’s social activism on behalf of the less fortunate as exceeding their intended mandate as neutral, apolitical spiritual advisers, while Matthew sees it as a moral duty of his position.  Meanwhile, despite his straitlaced demeanor, Greg is wrestling with private issues.  Not only does he have trouble adhering to the priesthood’s rule of celibacy, he breaks it with another man (Robert Carlyle) he picks up at a gay bar.  And the plot–and Greg’s crisis of faith– deepens when a 14-year-old girl in the confessional box (Christine Tremarco) admits to Greg (who is bound by the code of confidentiality to not repeat anything he hears in confession) that she is being sexually molested by her own father (Robert Pugh).

Unsurprisingly but disappointingly and hypocritically, the Catholic League raised an uproar about Priest at the time of its release, labeling it as an attack on the Catholic Church (despite there being nothing in the onscreen storyline that did not exist in newspapers, making their reaction akin, in my opinion, to burying their heads in the sand).  To me, while its depiction of some church officials (the Bishop of Greg and Matthew’s archdiocese, for instance) is decidedly less-than-flattering, and it raises questions of whether holding priests–human men, not asexual automatons–to a life of celibacy is realistic or fair, and how far the code of confessional confidentiality should be taken, it never disrespects its central priest characters or their religious beliefs.  It is a shame that a movie that has a lot to say, and a lot of thought-provoking questions to ask, was threatened with being drowned out, silenced, and buried by those who found some of its questions uncomfortable.

There are two main plot strands here–Greg’s closeted homosexuality, and his conundrum about what to do with his knowledge of sexual abuse in his congregation–that initially seem a little disparate and unconnected, but both feed on parallel tracks into the mounting crisis of faith experienced by Greg.  While incestuous rape is portrayed as black-and-white evil, the movie is sympathetic to Greg’s personal plight, with Father Matthew sticking up for him against those such as their Bishop and numerous members of their congregation, and asking the tough questions they don’t want to hear, about whether the church’s anti-homosexuality rules are Godly or man-made prejudices, and accusing the church leaders of giving priority to rules and ceremony over humanity and the common good.

Priest examines various issues–homosexuality, homophobia, incest, God’s law v. man’s law, social and religious themes, and absolute certainty versus faith.  Many of these are voiced by the characters as rhetorical questions for the audience to ponder, such as Greg’s anguished pleas to Christ to do something to stop Lisa’s abuse, and how he can be expected to keep silent when he knows a young girl is continuing to suffer, and the movie doesn’t offer any easy answers.  Tough questions don’t have easy answers, if they have concrete “answers” at all.

Linus Roache (best-known to American audiences as Bruce Wayne’s father in Batman Begins, and Law & Order‘s Michael Cutter) gives a passionate (if occasionally a little overwrought) portrayal of Greg, who initially seems an aloof cold fish but reveals himself as a deeply torn and conflicted man facing two separate dilemmas that each feed into a mounting crisis of faith. In Roache’s hands, Greg is not any kind of stereotype, but a three-dimensional human with both flaws and virtues whose decisions and actions (or inaction) we don’t always agree with but with whom we can sympathize. Tom Wilkinson is more understated but equally (or even more) solid as Matthew, a mellow, nonjudgmental man who, unlike Greg, considers social activism on behalf of the less fortunate and marginalized a moral duty of his position, and deplores the exclusion and overemphasis on rules and ceremony to the neglect of true spirituality shown by some of his superiors. His impassioned sermon in defense of Greg and others excluded by the church in the climactic scene is one of Priest‘s most memorable moments. Also, while there’s nothing sexual in their dynamic (Matthew is straight, with a live-in girlfriend Greg initially disapproves of), the platonic connection that develops between the initially clashing Greg and Matthew feels heartfelt and genuine. Robert Carlyle is fine in the smaller role of Greg’s on-again off-again lover Graham, and Robert Pugh is chilling as the girl’s incestuous father, who is disturbingly matter-of-fact in defense of his actions.

Priest is not a great film, but it is a provocative and thoughtful one that raised questions and ideas that lingered in my mind after my viewing.  Its sedate, low-key, outwardly uneventful tone (typical of British dramas) will be a switch from what many Americans are accustomed to, and some will find it “boring”.  One could argue the resolution of the sexual abuse plotline is a little anti-climactic, and while the conclusion gives a level of closure, it leaves Greg’s relationship with Graham unresolved and up in the air, while some (myself included) may have hoped for more resolution.  But it comes and says what it wants to say without being afraid to say it, featuring some excellent performances and powerful moments along the way, and provokes thought and discussion in its wake.  That’s a laudable quality in any film, and one too rarely exhibited.