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Sacerdotal Sass BY STEVEN G. KELLMAN PRIEST Directed by Antonia Bird YOU ARE MAKING a laughingstock of my faith,” complains a congregant when Greg Pilkington, a young priest arrested for public indecency, attempts to conduct Holy Mass. Priest, which Miramax planned to release on Good Friday, has itself been denounced by Catholic groups as a travesty of their religion. Had it not been directed by a novice, Antonia Bird, and produced independently, in England, the film might have been treated as the second coming of The Last Temptation of Christ, a piece of cinematic blasphemy that warrants righteous wrath. Based on a screenplay by Jimmy McGovern, Priest contains nothing to offend the devout except a painful glimpse at conflicts between the religious life and a human one. Priest begins in iconoclasm. An embittered, superannuated cleric carries an enormous crucifix through city streets and then uses it to smash the windows of his church. Inside the rectory hangs a photograph of Sitting Bull, as if to suggest that priests, like Indian chiefs, are relics of a vanished era. By the evidence of this film, the survivors are partial to alcohol, adultery and animosity. When a fresh recruit, Father signed to a working-class parish in Liverpool, he soon discovers that a colleague is sleeping with the housekeeper of the rectory. “For God’s sake, get rid of her,” Greg admonishes, but Father Matthew \(Tom genuinely in love. Matthew recalls an earlier liaison, the result of a four-year mission in South America that offered him the dilemma of either taking up with a woman or else being ignored by the local populace. Greg is outraged by the opportunistic violation of sacramental vows. “A few years more, and you might learn a little humility,” Matthew tells Greg, who is intent on making the profane world conform to the precepts of a seminary. When Greg delivers his maiden sermon, a high-minded disquisition on scapegoats, the flock is bored and Matthew is offended. “You expect less of people because they Steven G. Kellman teaches comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio. live in a poor parish,” righteous Greg tells the other priest. “I find that offensive.” But Matthew, who believes that “Creation is an ongoing process,” accommodates himself and his principles to the populace he serves. The people’s priest, Matthew can be found in the local pub, swigging and singing with his fellow Christians. Greg prefers to keep his collar on, except when he dons a leather jacket and slinks off to cruise a local gay bar. What most dramatically distinguishes priests from laymen is a commitment to celibacy. The struggle to sublimate the libido is a familiar theme in ecclesiastical fictions as various as The Canterbury Tales, The Thorn Birds and Diary of a Country Priest. Priest thickens the formula by adding an inner conflict between spiritual obligations and homosexual urges. When Greg’s leather jacket comes out of the closet, so, as a man who finds earthly satisfaction through another man’s flesh, does he. But Greg has not yet resolved his ambivalence toward trysts with Graham out of a parked car and hauled into jail. It is a shabby conclusion to celestial ambitions. 5 INCE THE FILM IS otherwise so determined to catechize the old-time religion with current questions, it is surprising that AIDS is absent from the Liverpool of Priest. How do wayward men of the cloth cope with Kaposi’s sarcoma? Father Greg is able to indulge his erotic desires with no dire consequences, except for judicial arraignment, ecclesiastical banishment, public humiliation and suicidal depression. However, McGovern’s screenplay does toss in another timely theme: child abuse. Before he is exposed as a legal deviant, Father Greg receives confession from Lisa Unsworth, a neighborhood girl who confides that her father has been raping her. Should Greg violate the sacred secrecy of the shrift in order to put an end to incest? Matthew counsels compromise: “I’d drop a hint.” Yet Greg, the purist, fumes at the abomination but, constrained by the protocols of private confession, does nothing. When Lisa’s mother \(Lesley ward the feckless priest almost equals her contempt for her own beastly husband. “You knew,” she shouts at Greg. “What kind of man are you? I hope you burn in hell.” Matthew offers loving warmth to a man whose current torments are a vivid trailer for the infernal afterlife. Unlike the sanctimonious Bishop and a rural pastor who subjects the errant priest to a regimen of isolation, Latin and wrathful glares, Wilkinson’s amiable Matthew refuses to condemn Greg after he is denounced as a practicing homosexual. Admirably Christian in his compassion for a fellow sinner, he insists that Greg’s self-loathing is unmerited. “Do you really think God gives a damn what men do with their dicks?” asks Matthew. And because he is such a congenial, liberated guy, we are inclined to accept the implicit answer: “Of course, She does not.” The problem is that dicks are not minor physiological accessories, like toenails or earlobes. Pace Wayne Bobbitt, the sexual member is metonymy to identity. If God cares at all about men, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the Divinity takes a special interest in the dicks of every Tom and Harry. That is not to sanction erotic oppression, to justify intricate restrictions on human intimacy. But it does suggest that the film’s tacit endorsement of sexual liberation is too facile. After all, Lisa’s lecherous father also argues against social conventions. “Incest is human,” claims Mr. natural thing in the world.” Like the viewer, Greg is horrified. “It’s a sin,” he insists. But Priest never quite resolves why following nature and being human sometimes leads to sin, sometimes to bliss. Priest is strongest as a story of vocation. “God wants me to be a priest,” Greg contends. “I know it.” What he does not yet know is how arduous are the obstacles to success in the church. Like worthy worldly callings such as teacher, social worker and public defender, a priest in Priest must find a way to reconcile the ideal to the real, to navigate the tensions between personal intuition and public institution. “The best way for you to serve God is to disappear,” Greg is told by the head of his diocese. He is still around at the end of the film, in a maudlin scene that augurs reconciliation without bothering to specify how. Greg stands before the altar of a church that has not quite banished him, and the soundtrack serenades us with the smarmy strains of “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Keep the faith, but chuck the music. THE TEXAS OBSERVER 21