Director Antonia Bird outraged the Catholic Church and embarrassed her film's distributors (Miramax and its parent company, Disney) with this candid portrayal of the moral anguish and development of a young priest (Linus Roache) struggling to come to terms with the sins of his new parish
and his own homosexuality.
Father Greg Pilkington arrives in working-class Liverpool and is shocked by the libertine behavior of his fellow clergyman and housemate Matthew Thomas (Tom Wilkinson). When he catches Matthew sleeping with the housekeeper (Cathy Tyson), he erupts with moral indignation. The older priest warns him
that he has much to learn.
Father Pilkington's lessons begin when a 14-year-old girl (Christine Tremarco) confesses to him that her father (Robert Pugh) is sexually abusing her. Tortured by the confession, Pilkington must choose between informing the girl's mother and honoring the seal of the confessional. He hesitates too
long, and the mother catches her husband in the act. She angrily condemns the young priest for having kept his knowledge silent.
While clinging to the sanctity of church law on this matter, Pilkington has meanwhile been breaking his vows by sleeping with a man (Robert Carlyle) he met at a gay bar. One day, while having sex in a parked car, they are caught by the police and arrested. When the media discover that one of the
offenders is a priest, the story becomes front page news. Ostracized from his community and traumatized by disgrace, Pilkington is sent to a retreat in a small village.
Matthew comes to convince him to return and say mass with him before the parish. Many of the flock are outraged by his return, refusing to forgive his transgression and leaving the church in disgust. The two friends continue the service for those who have chosen to forgive, one of whom is the
young girl. The film concludes with their embrace, as she comes to take the host.
The three principal sins at issue in this deeply moral film are heterosexual sex within the priesthood, homosexual sex, and incestuous sex. The young priest's certainty regarding the evil of sexual sin is challenged by his discovery that Matthew and the housekeeper share a long-standing, committed
loving relationship, as well as by the growing love and friendship between himself and his homosexual lover. He also must contend with the unsettling argument that incest is natural and merely a cultural taboo.
As revealed in the film, the complexity of these issues points up the problematic nature of all ethical claims, the difference between law and justice, and the difficulty of maintaining faith in the midst of cruelty, suffering, and the silence of God.
While the film takes a liberal position, exposing the injustice done to both heterosexual and homosexual love by Catholicism, it is careful to leave difficult questions unanswered, placing more value on the raising of questions and the stimulation of philosophical debate.
Originally made for British television, this well-acted melodrama offers a more candid and bold visual portrayal of homosexual eroticism than American audiences are accustomed to. Refusing to shy away from controversial images, Bird quietly demystifies taboos. Directed with depth and intelligence,
PRIEST lucidly delivers its message that sin is a complicated matter, and forgiveness and humility an even greater challenge. (Nudity, sexual situations, adult situations.)
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- Released: 1994
- Rating: NR
- Review: Director Antonia Bird outraged the Catholic Church and embarrassed her film's distributors (Miramax and its parent company, Disney) with this candid portrayal of the moral anguish and development of a young priest (Linus Roache) struggling to come to terms… (more)