A Priest At War With Himself

We're priests, not bloody social workers!'' screams the young, doctrinaire Father Greg (Linus Roache) to the middle-aged, activist Father Matthew (Tom Wilkinson), whose working- class Liverpool parish he's just joined. Their theological disputes begin almost as soon as the handsome, gym-fit Greg arrives. To his ear, Matthew is just fobbing off glib liberal pieties to his flock, when he should be discussing the spiritual. He's doubly shocked to discover that Matthew has taken the presbytery's pretty housekeeper (Cathy Tyson) as his mistress. ""Get rid of her,'' he advises sternly, brooking no argument. ""There's just sin.''

Before Antonia Bird's Priest comes to its highly charged conclusion, all Greg's notions of sin, of his vocation, of the Roman Catholic Church's role in the community and of his own identity will be subject to painful re-examination. During confession a 14-year-old girl (Christine Tremarco) reveals that her father is molesting her. Horrified, Greg wants to intervene but can't -- it's forbidden to break the seal of the confessional. Burdened with her secret, he then must grapple with his own. How can he be so contemptuous of Matthew's breach of celibacy when his own desires lead him to Liverpool's gay bars and a night of unpriestly ecstasy in the arms of a man?

""Priest'' is loaded with enough live-wire issues to fuel a mini-series. Director Bird and writer Jimmy McGovern take on incest, homosexuality, the church's civil war between conservative and liberation theologies, and the age-old conflict between one's obligation to God and to one's conscience. It's solid, intelligent moviemaking and, at its best -- in the scenes involving the abused Lisa, her self-justifying father (Robert Pugh) and her outraged mother (Lesley Sharp) -- emotionally wrenching.

But in packing in so many thematic controversies, ""Priest'' can't quite escape that TV-movie feeling that the issues are dictating the drama, and the characters are just along for the dialectical ride. To these secular eyes, the bearish, feistily compassionate Father Matthew is hugely sympathetic, but I kept wondering why he bothered being a priest in the first place, since he refuses to play by any of the rules. Bird finds nice pockets of humor to counteract the melodrama, but at the climactic moment she uses a music cue so corny it undermines the genuine feelings she's worked hard and honestly to evoke. Nonetheless, ""Priest'' shouldn't be missed -- much of it is strong and moving. My reservation is not that it bites off more than it can chew (these days, big teeth are welcome) but that there's something mechanical about its mastication. Its controversies feel predigested.

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