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THE HELL OF ST. MARY'S

The unholy furor that assorted Roman Catholics and sundry conservatives are raising over Priest should be just enough to ensure its success at the box office. But no infusion of scandal can deliver it from TV-movie mediocrity.

British director Antonia Bird, who's making her feature-film debut, and writer Jimmy McGovern, who clearly likes the sound of his own voice to come through his characters, here strike the pose of social pioneers. Hunkering down in a working-class parish in gray Liverpool, they quickly stuff their film full of hot-button Catholic issues like homosexuality and celibacy, the old war between liberal and conservative theology and the even older one between priestly vows and conscience.

But that's not enough. They also work in the sanctity of confession, the horror of incest and the powers of the church hierarchy. You begin to feel that if the movie goes on five more minutes, a couple of thousand pro-choicers and an equal number of pro-lifers will suddenly spring onto the screen and start swinging placards at each other.

The twin armatures around which all this is wrapped are a young orthodox priest, Greg Pilkington (Linus Roache), and his middle-aged, social-activist colleague at St. Mary's, Matthew Thomas (Tom Wilkinson). These are the Nineties, so don't expect to see Bing Crosby and Spencer Tracy. The earthy Father Matthew, we soon learn, not only has a taste for karaoke night down at the local pub, he's also having an affair with the parish housekeeper (Cathy Tyson). Almost before the audience can absorb that, the other shoe drops. With much ceremony and a long look in the mirror, grave, dour Father Greg removes his clerical collar, pulls a black leather jacket out of his closet and sets off on a bike to find guilty rapture in the embrace of another man.

This is the stuff that has the Catholic League up in arms and threatening to boycott Disney, the parent company of Priest's distributor, Miramax Films. But let's be fair to a movie that has a lot of faults. Bird (who's a Protestant) and McGovern (Catholic through and through) may scald what they see as a repressive institution, but they extol the priestly virtues of the two flawed heroes--men struggling to reconcile their humanity with their vocation. Roache is the picture of tightly strung repression, Wilkinson the soul of street wisdom, and we come to like them both. They have no obligation to represent every priest on the planet.

The movie's real weakness, you could say, is not that it steps on the toes of the pious, but that it yells at all of us. Father Greg's first crisis--a teenager's revelation, under the seal of confession, that her father has been raping her--drives him into such a state of impotent rage that he starts screaming at the big crucifix on his wall: "Do something! Don't just hang there, you smug, idle bastard." Blasphemy or nickel-dime sensation, take your choice. It's the young priest's second crisis--and you can guess what that is--that provokes the moviemakers to let fly with their crudest melodrama and their entire catechism of dissent.

In fact, despite its genuine feeling for Fathers Matthew and Greg, the film seems designed to annoy almost everybody: While many Catholics fume with injury, nonbelievers get an equal chance to loose their scorn.

Actually, Priest works best when it's not preaching to either group, when the day-to-day textures of life around St. Mary's parish come to the fore. There's a wonderfully offbeat funeral at which the tipsy mourners astonish buttoned-up Father Greg by bursting into the dead man's favorite song--"Great Balls of Fire." There's a nice moment, fueled by a couple of drinks, when the two priests goof on a Latin-spouting dinosaur who's been assigned to keep his eye on Father Greg in the midst of his downfall.

But so much of Priest is blunt and heavy-handed that admirers of good moviemaking may be as put off by it as devout Catholics. Roache's shouting-at-Christ scene is the most flagrant (and familiar) example, but the picture's climactic moment of redemption is a melodramatic sledgehammer, too. In fact, Bird can't seem to refrain from broad strokes at every turn. The hypocritical bishop (Rio Fanning) is sour to the point of caricature. The surly, defiant father (Robert Pugh) of the abused girl seems to have crawled straight out of Dickens. The Mass at which Father Greg and outraged parishioners shout biblical quotes at each other rings false.

Still, the moral and social ambiguities facing a dwindling priesthood at the end of the twentieth century can always use a good airing, particularly beyond the realms of the religious convocation and the editorial page. This may not be the most accomplished film ever made, but Priest is bound to stir a few useful debates in churchyards, saloons and classrooms. That's more than you can say for most films. So, amen. With reservations.

 
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