Of Many Things

Every time I see a movie (which is a lot) and a priest or a nun appears on screen (which is not a lot) I steel myself for the worst. Though directors, screenwriters and actors have of late been able to furnish moviegoers with convincing portrayals of, among other difficult subjects, middle-aged tobacco company whistle-blowers, inner-city violin teachers, seedy-but-gifted college professors, prison guards on death row and a cross-dressing young woman passing as a young man, they seem unable to give viewers something as straightforward as a believable priest or nun. Normally, when a person of the cloth appears in a movie it’s (a) to appear in a flashback to demonstrate how miserable one’s Catholic childhood was, (b) for a bit of comic relief or (c) to utter cringeworthy dialogue preceded by the phrase, My child....

So it was with mixed expectations that I went to see Keeping the Faith, the new movie about a priest and a rabbi who fall in love with the same woman. On the one hand, it boasts a great cast: Edward Norton is arguably the finest actor of his generation; Ben Stiller a talented comic writer and actor; and Jenna Elfman a gifted actress whom some critics have likened to Jean Arthur. On the other hand, the coming attractions made it look pretty silly and suggested that it would rely on plenty of slapstick for cheap laughs. Featured prominently in the trailer, for example, Father Edward Norton’s alb catches on fire courtesy of an unruly censer; to extinguish the flames he jumps butt-first into a nearby baptismal font. (This happens to me all the time.)


Anyway, I’ll cut to the chase. The film is delightful, and the film’s jokey trailer doesn’t do it justice. Okay, it’s not The Philadelphia Story, or Jules and Jim, two films that pop to mind when one thinks of a threesome in a light comedy, but in its look not only at romantic love but also at the challenges of celibacy, it’s a breath of fresh air.

Keeping the Faith follows two boys and a girl, fast friends growing up in New York City. In the years since adolescence, the boys have become a rabbi and a priest, both serving congregations in Manhattan. The girl, for her part, is now a Left Coast corporate executive. The return of Anna to New York, after many years, triggers an avalanche of emotions on everyone’s part, and quite despite themselves both men fall in love with her.

One of the more compelling aspects of the film is how it treats the difficult topic of a man who chooses celibacy but finds himself struggling with what spiritual directors like to call intimacy needs. Early in the movie, Mr. Norton’s character, Brian, professes to Anna that he has absolutely no problem with celibacy. He never, ever, thinks of sex, he says, and doesn’t ever miss having a companion. Uh huh, I thought, and waited for his wake-up call.

The most effective scene comes after Father Brian awkwardly confesses his feelings for Anna and is consumed with both remorse and embarrassment. He seeks guidance from his pastor, marvelously played by the director Milos Forman. I fall in love at least once a decade, says the older priest, who then offers him sage advice on listening to God to figure out how best to respond to his emotions.

All of this put me in mind of something my novice director once told me. The popular understanding of celibacy is not loving, whereas the true celibate loves, and loves a lot. And if you don’t fall in love once in a while, there’s probably something wrong with you, he said. The question is what to do with those feelingsa bit of advice, by the way, that Father Brian himself offers to a young man in the confessional.

Scenes like this, even in a light comedy, are extraordinarily rare, and go a long way toward helping people understand the joys and struggles of celibacy. They also make Keeping the Faith one of the most touching movies about the priesthood I’ve ever seen, burning albs and all.

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