IN A WORLD OF RITUALS, IN A PLACE OF SECRETS, A MAN MUST CHOOSE BETWEEN KEEPING THE FAITH AND EXPOSING THE TRUTH.
It took a long time for me to acknowledge the fact that I’m bisexual. Virtually raised in a church, there are times when I look back on those happy days and wonder, what if my sexuality had been less complex and I would have known for certain as a teenager? And would have felt an absolute need to act out more? Would I have been equally welcomed in that church? I will never know, and times are different now, 25 years later. Released when I was 18, Priest delves deep into the Catholic church’s moral issues.
A conservative priest is horrified
Father Greg Pilkington (Linus Roache) arrives in Liverpool, ready to begin his new assignment. The priest is conservative and horrified to learn that his new colleague, Father Matthew Thomas (Tom Wilkinson), is actually involved in a sexual relationship with the rectory housekeeper, Maria Kerrigan (Cathy Tyson). This breach of celibacy is a sin to Greg, but he’s about to face much bigger challenges. A young student tells him in confession that she’s being molested by her father. When Greg confronts the man he’s defiant and considers his sin to be justified.
Greg doesn’t know what to do about the situation, and at the same time he meets Graham (Robert Carlyle). Greg has a secret that he hasn’t told anyone; sometimes, he goes to gay bars to meet men.
Fascinated by the concept of sin
This was Antonia Bird’s first film as a director, written by the man who created the now-classic crime series Cracker (1993-1995). Raised a Catholic, Jimmy McGovern became fascinated by the concept of sin, evident not only in this movie but in the series Broken, which also followed a Liverpool priest. Bird’s film was controversial at the time of its release and divided the critics. Some saw a simplistic melodrama, others were profoundly moved.
There’s one aspect of the movie that’s undeniably problematic. The man who abuses his daughter comes across as unnecessarily, borderline cartoonishly evil. It’s not Robert Pugh’s fault; he does what he can with a poorly written character. Mr. Unsworth is proud, and aggressively so, of what he’s doing to his daughter; he wouldn’t want his wife to know, but he explains to the priest that he has no regrets and doesn’t consider raping his daughter a problem whatsoever. This is not how men who commit these crimes usually behave, and this outlandish touch of evil doesn’t make the crime anymore heinous, or Greg’s moral situation more complex, than they already are. That said, this is virtually the only complaint I have. Roache is fine in his breakthrough role, a character we’re not necessarily supposed to like. Greg has many lessons to learn throughout the film, often failing to understand how destructive moral attitudes within the church’s hierarchy is the reason why he feels a need to suppress his sexuality and look down on his fellow believers.
The opposite is symbolized in Wilkinson’s character, a charismatic, free-spirited man of the people who believes in Liberation theology; they end up clashing in the same heated but friendly way Benedict and Francis would in another film, The Two Popes, 25 years later. It is their friendship and union that carries Greg all the way through his process of redemption, until that shattering moment in the end when he once again confronts the young girl he failed to help.
Priest feels down-to-earth in its portrait of the Liverpool community and conveys the many issues it has with the Catholic church in compelling ways, while also finding time for a realistic romance between Roache and Carlyle. It’s a delicate balance between man and church, not faith.
Priest 1994-Britain. 105 min. Color. Produced by George Faber, Josephine Ward. Directed by Antonia Bird. Screenplay: Jimmy McGovern. Cast: Linus Roache (Greg Pilkington), Tom Wilkinson (Matthew Thomas), Cathy Tyson (Maria Kerrigan), Robert Carlyle, James Ellis, Lesley Sharp.
Last word: “We were quite nervous because we’re all three of us straight and we thought what is our right to do this scene? and so my attitude was that’s not what it’s about. It’s actually about drawing an audience into a relationship and a need that the character has. Why should be different if gay or straight or whoever we are, it’s sexual, it’s love, it’s warmth, it’s gentleness, it’s all the things. I wanted people to see a gay sex scene on the screen and not go ‘Isn’t that shocking?’ But to go ‘isn’t that gorgeous?'” (Bird on making the sex scenes with Roache and Carlyle, The Guardian)