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Religion Goes To the Movies: or, Through the Camera Lens and What I Found There

In much the same way that Michael Dukakis allowed the right to define "liberal" in 1988, the left is allowing the right the privilege of defining the terms in which faith is discussed.
Cynthia J. Hoffman

Issue #28, October 1996

"If I'm the President of the United States, I'm going to encourage consumers to ... not patronize these movies."
— Republican Presidential Candidate Bob Dole commenting on the Miramax release Priest on Meet the Press, March 1995.
"If that love scene isn't any more than hand holding and chest kissing innuendo, then what, exactly, do those critics think a heterosexual love scene is: real sex?"
— Me, March, 1995.

A few years ago, on Northern Exposure, DJ Chris Stephens spent the better part of an episode accompanied by a ventriloquist's dummy (name unknown, Dummy it is). Everyone loved Dummy: Chris was invited to parties if he'd bring him; Chris was a great table guest at the Brick if Dummy was with him. When Chris was alone, no one wanted to listen to what he had to say; when Chris was with Dummy, and Dummy could express an opinion, everyone listened. Dummy had a sense of humor, and Dummy had a simple moral code. When Chris accused Dummy of seeing everything in black and white, Dummy replied: "Right and wrong, not black and white." When characters asked Chris for advice, they got two or three options, accompanied by the implications of the choices they were making. When Dummy talked, he just said "do this" or "do that" because it was the "right thing to do." No implications, no consequences. Finally, Chris left Dummy on a bus stop bench for the next idiot who thought he could control him.

I used to believe that episode was a parable about the differences between the right and the left in American politics, and I'm not totally convinced I was wrong about that: easy answers do tend, after all, to win elections. In this country, anything that forces us to think rather than gives us easy answers is immediately suspect. However, in the past few years, some popular culture has evinced a real willingness to tackle tough issues without providing either the simple answers or the closure we have traditionally come to expect .

Last summer, we were all invited to watch as the spectacle known as the modern Olympiad took place. In the opening ceremonies, there was a paean to Martin Luther King, Jr. I can't claim to have paid much attention to the opening ceremonies, or even to the Olympics itself, for that matter, but I do recall pretty clearly wondering what business Atlanta, Georgia had performing such a tribute when it had spent so much time and energy attempting to stop progress when it was represented by a living Reverend King. More to the point, I was incredulous that none of those reporting the event even bothered to mention that not so far away from the very spot where all this celebration was occurring, in Birmingham, Alabama, Dr. King had spent time in jail for forcing people to ask the very questions that the city of Atlanta was now claiming had been answered. Then someone bombed the place, demonstrating once again that relying on "easy answers" is neither wise, nor safe.

Michael Tolkin's 1991 movie The Rapture asks tough questions and then has the guts to attempt to answer them: what does it mean to have absolute faith? and what is the price we pay for it? Not only does it take religion and religious questions seriously without being either preachy or condescending, it refuses to take the easy way out by having everything magically turn out okay at the end. As a friend of mine once put it, this movie is not a Sunday school sermon with great sex. Yes, one way of reading the final twenty minutes of it is to posit that The Rapture is real and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse really are going to come riding down the street. But more importantly, it also attempts to take into consideration what happens when a person who turns out to have a conscience and is able to articulate it clearly, sticks to her conscience in the face of the confirmation of a faith that she perceives of as having betrayed her, refusing to save herself with a lie. Watching Sharon explaining to the Sheriff how one can go about gaining God's forgiveness is a tour de force performance by Mimi Rogers and one of the most amazing monologues ever scripted. No one has to tell the audience that Sharon — no matter what we might think of her character — has been somehow victimized by blind faith. It is entirely possible, I suppose, to leave the theatre and not come to that conclusion at all, although quite frankly, it's difficult for me to see how. When the lights come up on the close of the film, what we are left with are questions: what was real, what was hallucination, and most importantly, what exactly are the consequences of our actions and the difference between blind and principled faith?

I'll never forget the final camera shot of that movie as long as I live.

The Rapture is one movie that makes us think twice about the assumption that all religious discourse these days is controlled by fundamentalist, evangelical right wingers out to deprive people who are "different" of their rights as humans. Not all religious discourse in the latter part of this century is about arguing for limitations; some of it is about opening our eyes to the world around us and taking responsibility for what we see. Watching Sharon come to terms with her choices, including her conscious choice to be saved in the early part of the movie and her equally conscious choice to accept damnation at the end of the movie, makes for powerful storytelling and education about the prices we pay for wanting something outside of ourselves to make our lives simpler and less empty.

It's tempting in these days of Right Wing Christian political activism to forget that some of the most liberating and radical thinking to come out of the New Left in the twentieth century came to us from the Church. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Minister; a Pope presided over Vatican II; the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s was based in churches in the United States and many of the victims of right wing repression in Central and South America in the latter part of this century are clergy, including nuns and priests who are either dead or missing in El Salvador because they had the courage to speak out against oppression. In spite of its reputation otherwise, the membership of the Catholic Church has always evinced a willingness to take on the tough issues. While Pope John Paul II and Cardinal O'Connor grab the headlines, behind the scenes, the lay membership of the church willingly grapples with issues of homosexuality, birth control, whether priests should marry and have sex, and what the role of the church should be in social and cultural change.

Remember that word game we used to play to fill spare time? You know the one I mean: the one where we'd take a word and figure out how many other words can be spelled with those same letters? Someone on the set of Antonia Bird's film Priest remembered that game too. When young Father Greg moves into the rectory he comes across a folded sheet of paper in a bible with the word P-R-I-E-S-T written across the top and the words


followed by R.I.P. below it. Since it's reasonably certain that the women cleaning the house in honor of its new arrival did not leave that note in the bible, we are left to presume that the first clergyman we saw, the one coming down the stairs as Greg is going up them, left it behind as a warning.

Priest had its North American premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in the Fall of 1994 and seemed an odd release for early in the 1995 film season (originally, its release in the U.S. was set for Good Friday; Miramax changed it). The script was written as a mini-series for English television and it boasted a talented if little known cast, including a star turn by actor Linus Roache. The script itself was unrelenting in its insistence that people should actually think about their faith and what it meant to their lives and not just accept rules blindly: who should get to give and take communion, for example, becomes a telling metaphor for Father Greg, who early on in the movie refuses communion to his lover, but is later visibly and emotionally relieved to discover that the one person he believes he has betrayed above all others, is the only one who will take communion from him.

The movie is filled with priests who question their avocation and talk about it with each other, wondering about the sanctity of the confessional and how to get around it; debating chastity and its place in the priesthood, including getting turned on by praying to the crucifixion; questioning why one becomes a priest, and whether one should leave the priesthood; arrogantly discoursing in a Latin no one knows any longer, all the while dealing with a Church bureaucracy that doesn't dare ask questions or express doubt and parishioners who display both the best and the worst characteristics humanity worldwide has to offer.

And it's unrelenting too, almost a soap opera for the first half-hour or so. It opens with an older priest removing a cross complete with a body on it, from his parish church. Then the camera moves out into a panoramic view of that same priest walking his own Via de la Rosa, taking that cross via public transportation to his Calvary, which turns out to be the front door of the bishopric and then using that cross as a battering ram to get inside. In quick succession we discover that this Bishop fires people without respect for either their age or their contributions and has nothing but contempt for Father Matthew; that Father Matthew preaches liberal politics and reads the Manchester Guardian from the pulpit and has sex with his housekeeper, a trick he learned while in South America where "a priest must have a woman so I got myself one."

We are also faced with the ironic, although not unexpected (the Bishop has warned us) fact that the main character, Father Greg, although younger, is the more rigid "true" believer who preaches using the language of the new Right wherein "personal responsibility" takes precedence over blaming society for societal ills, much to the dismay of both his parishioners and Father Matthew. Greg faces the so-called sexual impropriety of Matthew with the same style with which he gives his first sermon: "For God's sake, get rid of her" he says. Right and wrong are perceptibly simple to Greg, at least on the surface. That he gives in and allows the relationship, requesting only discretion feels like a big step, and it's merely the first in a long line of considered changes relating to doctrine in one form or another that Greg makes as the film moves forward. Following a boisterous wake, where he brings everyone down by offering to hear confessions so people can take communion at the funeral, we discover that Greg too, has a secret: he's gay, and moreover, he knows how to find a gay bar, and he's quite apparently good in bed.

It is only then that the movie delivers its real whammy in the form of an adolescent named Lisa, who tells Father Greg in the confessional that her father "makes her do things." And thus we are, of course, faced with the traditional dilemma of the "sanctity of the confessional" smacking up against the real world and the "good of the individual" we have come to expect from every popular cultural glimpse into the life of a Catholic clergyman.

For a man who truly believes that God wants him to be a priest, however, heavenly intervention in the real world becomes less than clear cut. When Greg starts asking himself tough questions, he is suddenly unable to be casual about answering them. As he says, it's easy to be casual about martyring himself if the sacramental wine is poisoned, but he's less sure of himself when he wants God to help him find a solution for Lisa's dilemma. When he can't convince Lisa to give him permission to talk to her mother; when Lisa's father proves himself to be intractable; and Father Matthew's solution — "drop a hint" — produces useless results, Greg does resort to prayer ... and fails to notice that he has created a solution himself.

In fact, however, if one sees God in coincidence, Father Greg does get heavenly help in solving his problem. His discovery that Lisa is home alone with her father upsets him enough that he calls off a planning meeting for — of all things — community housing and sends Lisa's mother home early enough to catch her husband in the act. In the final moments of the movie, we discover that while the congregation is vocally unwilling to forgive Greg for being the sexual transgressor who gets caught, Lisa is more than willing to forgive him, for being human and for trying to help her in the face of a monolith and the most disturbing sexual transgressor of the film, her father, who never gets called to answer for his crimes.

The strength, finally, of a movie like Priest is in its willingness to ask questions and demand that the characters answer them truthfully. While Father Greg is getting educated in the whys and wherefores of the system he has sworn a solemn oath to uphold, we are being educated as well, in both its strengths and its weaknesses. When Father Greg speaks with Father Matthew about what his sexual choices mean and Matthew insists that to think of oneself as walking a line from sick to sinful to downright evil makes no sense, Greg quite rightly points out that he's the one who lives it, that "glib Guardian reader crap" isn't going to help reconcile him to his nature in the face of years of education in a religious doctrine which tells him otherwise. Greg's discomfort with his homosexuality even while he acknowledges and acts on his love for Graham serves not only to express the Church's position on the matter, but additionally serves as a demonstration of the pain of conscious, principled belief in a doctrine that calls one evil. Having the character who acts against doctrine be at the same time the purveyor of it, is powerful theatre indeed.

If solemn vows are the currency of the Catholic Church, and even the membership is unable to keep them, what, then, are we left with as Priest closes? We are left with questions and as Northern Exposure reminded us, questions are the currency of the left. The left needs to find ways to demonstrate its compatibility with principled faith once again, or it risks losing a constituency with which it desperately needs to reconnect. In much the same way that Michael Dukakis allowed the right to define "liberal" in 1988, the left is allowing the right the privilege of defining the terms in which faith is discussed. By permitting the right to control the terms of debate, religion becomes a simple matter of blind faith and pure, unquestioning belief. This flies in the face of the myriad religious traditions in this country which encourage argument, intellectual growth and a sense of wonder in the world around us.

Remember that slip of paper Greg found in his bible at the beginning of Priest? The one with all the words on it that can be spelled using the letters in the word P-R-I-E-S-T? Well, the old guy forgot one. He forgot the word S-P-R-I-T-E — the word that stands for pixies and wonder and a sense of the magical and the possible in the world. Somehow, I don't believe that word will get left off when it comes time for Greg to make his own list.

Cynthia Hoffman keeps making gestures towards finishing graduate school, and in her spare time works at a law firm to pay the bills. That mysterious friend she alluded to is Catherine Siemann, a graduate student at Columbia, who periodically challenges her to think long and hard about what it means to believe in something and still be a principled, liberal humanist. Cynthia's cats, however, teach her that what's really important, is eating soft food every day and playing hard in the middle of the night. She can be reached via email at

Copyright © 1996 by Cynthia Hoffman. All rights reserved.