Last night I watched a movie that made me wish I still believed. Not because of the strength of the convictions or arguments of the film, but just because I know that if I still believed I might have some standing to argue that Christians should see this movie. But I’m only a heathen and I have very few Christian friends these days. So instead I will talk to the great wide internet.
The movie is 1994’s Priest and it is a deeply faith-based movie. There will be some spoilers in what I write here, so if you’re concerned, probably you should go watch it. Over the past few years I have watched dozens of “Christian” movies and have found them to be offensively shallow. I may be starting a new blog once I graduate in a few weeks and there may be some reviews on those.
The point is that Priest is not that film. A young priest named Father Greg who believes with all his heart that God has called him to this work. His new parish has an unconventional priest, played to perfection by the wonderful Tom Wilkerson, who sings karaoke with the community and has an ongoing relationship with his housekeeper. Father Greg is gay and when he goes to a bar one night and home for a one night stand, he is horrified when his partner realizes he’s Catholic. His partner only shrugs, “Takes one to know one.” Father Greg runs out the door as fast as he can go.
I assumed this would be a gay romance using the trope of a priest (or maybe two) but this is a much deeper and more painful film than that. While his sexuality is a grappling point for him, it is only one of many. The more central point really comes when the daughter of a parish family confesses to him what her father is doing to her behind closed doors. The man shows no remorse, and Father Greg is sickened and horrified by his choices. What can he do? He tries to drop hints but no one picks up on them. The girl begins having fits at school, her mother works as a secretary. When her mother is with him, he knows the girl is home, with her father.
There are many ways this storyline could have played out. It is the fact that the film takes his pain so very genuinely that makes it successful. Am I frustrated that he doesn’t just call social services, that he doesn’t immediately tell her mother? Absolutely I am. But Father Greg is anguished over his decision, wracking his brain, begging God on his knees to do something, tell him what to do, shouting at him. This is no man following tradition blindly, this is a man torn apart by what he believes is his calling and what he believes to be right.
It is this fearlessness that makes the movie dangerous and sincere. We see him making out with his lover, but it is not a graphic movie in any way. Mostly we see deep and complex conversations about the meaning of faith and the impossibility of being human. Father Greg walks with his lover down the beach, agonizing over this child, and talks about how Christ may have gone to the cross but he went with certainty, he went with the absolute knowledge that God and heaven existed, and that’s not really the same, is it? “He wasn’t human enough,” he says with frustration.
But make no mistake, in spite of all the potentially sacrilegious questions it poses (or perhaps because of them), this movie ends on some of the most deeply sacred acts of love I have seen on film. If I still believed in a kind of Christianity, it would be in the last 10 minutes of this movie.
I know that no Christians I grew up with would watch this movie. There are multiple scenes of men kissing, and they would see much of what was said as a dilution of holiness or what was important about God. But to me, this is the best that faith can be in the midst of horrible circumstances. It is a true representation of someone struggling genuinely with his faith in opposition to what he has been taught, with what he feels the love of God must encompass if it is to have meaning, and with what he believes God has built on earth. These exact things go to the heart of many of my own problems with institutions of religion, but I do believe the members of those institutions should be more often portrayed as real people seeking genuinely.
I don’t know who will watch this movie. My reach is pretty limited. But I hope a few people do. It expires on Netflix at the end of the month, but I’m sure it’ll be around. It’s worth the time.