Antonia Bird’s Priest begins with a crescendo. A man sits on a park bench, picks up a large wooden cross with a crucified Jesus on it, carries it to the church, and uses it as a battering ram to bust through the window of the head of the church. A title card appears onscreen: PRIEST. It doesn’t take long to figure out that you’re in for a movie that has something to say and intends on saying it fiercely.
Cut to a new priest coming to the church. Who is he replacing? The man who drove that cross through the picture window. We learn he’s been, “reassigned.”
The new priest is conventional, pious, and immediately at odds with Tom Wilkinson’s more forward thinking holy man. Wilkinson drinks, sings country songs at the bar, and has a housekeeper (the gorgeous Cathy Tyson) who clearly is attending to needs that go well beyond the wash.
Linus Roache plays this new priest, in what should have been a star-making performance. At first, his Father Pilkington comes off as too straight-laced, too caught up in tradition, except for one very significant fact: Father Pilkington is a gay man.
We see the good father pick up a new lover in a club (a terrific pre-Trainspotting Robert Carlyle), and the film doesn’t cheat on the sex scene. It is sensual, erotic, and unapologetic. And maybe a reason why the film didn’t find a larger audience during its release.
At first, the film promises to be about Pilkington’s moral dilemma about being not only a sexually active priest, but a homosexually active priest. And that sensitive subject is certainly explored, but Priest has more on its mind than what many in the Catholic Church would consider his personal transgression.
Priest is also focused on the nature of sin. Early on in the film, Pilkington argues that all sin is equal, but Wilkinson’s Father Thomas will have none of that. And then when a young girl comes into Father Pilkington’s confessional and tells him that her father is molesting her, Pilkington is forced to reconsider his certitude regarding the equality of sin.
Some crimes are truly greater than others.
The young girl’s father then takes to Father Pilkington’s confessional as well. It’s a sinister move (and a show-stopping scene) by a man who not only has no intention of stopping his assault upon his child, he embraces it. He likes it. He is absent of quandary. He also knows that Father Pilkington can not break the seal of the confessional. He can not betray the trust of the daughter or that of her father—not if he wants to follow the laws of the church.
Father Pilkington all but begs the girl to be given permission to speak to someone about her circumstances. She says no. He even tries to appeal to the girl’s father’s sense of decency, only to find that he has none.
It’s a maddening circumstance that for those of us who do not share in this faith, might think that the solution is simple—drop a dime on that sick bastard. But for a man so wrapped in tradition and church rule, it simply isn’t. Not even as he’s breaking his vow to God by taking up with his sweet lover on the side.
The debates that go on between Pilkington, his lover, and Father Thomas (who becomes an unlikely friend), are grueling and heart-tending. Father Pilkington isn’t just fighting the standards of the church, or even that of his own mind, but the word of God too. It’s fair to say that nothing less than Father Pilkington’s soul is at stake. What does God want from the young Father? What does the young Father want from God?
In a film with many powerful scenes, perhaps the most trenchant Is one where Father Pilkington rails and wails at a crucifix on a wall. Screaming at Jesus—begging him to do something, anything. He rages at this symbol of righteousness and rectitude, all while the film cross cuts a scene of the young girl’s mother catches her husband in the act with his daughter. I swear, you can just about feel your nerves come loose from your body.
And in the next scene, when the young girl’s mother confronts Father Pilkington over his reticence, you side with her while somehow understanding him. It’s astounding filmmaking.
Over the course of the film’s 97-minute running time, Father Pilkington learns a lot about himself and about the shades of grey. We learn a lot about this uptight priest too. We learn that he is a good man, who doesn’t always make good decisions. The fact that he happens to be a gay man has fuck all to do with his basic, inherent humanity. It’s a lesson that was worth learning in 1994 and is no less worthy today.
After Father Pilkington is outed, his position in the church becomes decidedly complicated. The film closes with the administering of Mass. Father Thomas insists that they deliver the service together. The members of the parish have two priests they can take wine and wafer from. All of them select Father Thomas’s line—forsaking Father Pilkington. All of them save one. A young girl comes up alone, takes the wafer on her tongue, and at that moment, ‘Priest’ elevates and becomes about something more than the already profound issues the plot covers.
It becomes a film about forgiveness. Not only the forgiveness from and to others, but the forgiveness of self. In that quiet moment, as Roache crumbles before this young lady, he is given, and therefore gives himself, the permission to accept mercy.
I’ll be god damned if it doesn’t kill me every time.