Screening Priests: From Spencer Tracy to Ewan McGregor

The future of priests on the silver screen is a good question to ask in this “Year of the Priest.” American film culture has maintained something of an ambivalent relationship with the Catholic priesthood, an institution that it has both revered and reviled. In the early days of sound film, the 1934 Production Code secured that all representations of religious figures “not be used in comedy, villains or as unpleasant persons.” Buoyed by New Deal optimism and middle-class sensibilities, the golden age of Hollywood made the Roman collar primarily an instrument of cultural stability, presenting priests as caretakers of wayward kids (Spencer Tracy’s Fr. Flanagan in “Boy’s Town,” 1938), heroic chaplains in the armed forces (Pat O’Brien’s Fr. Duffy in “The Fighting 69th,” 1940) and anchors of empathy and social reconstruction (Bing Crosby’s Fr. O’Malley in “Going My Way,” 1944 and “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” 1945). Fr. O’Malley, in particular, struck a deep chord among American viewers during wartime, making both Crosby features number one at the box office for their respective years.

If the Fr. Flanagan and Fr. O’Malleys of the studio period functioned as reassuring paternal figures to a troubled nation, then priests on film served practically the opposite purpose in peacetime, disclosing an America on the edge of monumental change, especially about attitudes towards sexuality and the establishment. When Fr. Barry (Karl Malden) is pelted with garbage during a sermon defending a murdered longshoreman in “On the Waterfront” (1954), we sense a culture already questioning its institutional allegiances. Fr. Logan (Montgomery Clift) is suspected of murder in “I Confess” (1953); an amorously conflicted and ambitious Fr. Fermoyle (Tom Tryon) is almost lynched by the Ku Klux Klan in “The Cardinal” (1963); Fr. Spellacy (Robert De Niro) in the underrated “True Confessions” (1981) winds up in a tiny desert parish dying of cancer, having been overly entangled in church and city politics. 

More recently, John Patrick Shanley’s adaptation of his Broadway hit, “Doubt” (2008), marks a fascinating terminus to this long line of “priest films” in Hollywood. In a way, “Doubt” and “The Bells of St. Mary’s” are like estranged twins, showcasing an evolution of a subgenre. Not unlike Fr. O’Malley, Fr. Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) wants to modernize conditions at his parish, St. Nicholas, urging a new, open-minded inclusiveness. (Tellingly, the film is set near the end of the Second Vatican Council.) Both priests clash with a powerful nun. 

But the difference between the two clerics is striking: O’Malley has been cast as a priest-savior, Flynn as a potential menace to the church and society. O’Malley has come to the inner city not only to save a school, but also his erstwhile rival, Sister Mary Benedict, (Ingrid Bergman) gently informing her that the good woman has “a touch of tuberculosis.” Sister may be off to Arizona to recover, but no matter: anytime there’s a snag, “just dial ‘O’ for O’Malley.” By contrast, Sr. Aloysius (Meryl Streep) is convinced that Flynn has come to radicalize her territory with a progressive theology and worse, to prey upon young children—particularly a needy, sexually ambivalent African-American boy. In effect, Sister Aloysius, a kind of feminist sage for the early sixties, subverts any efforts Flynn might make to play the redeemer, doggedly steeling herself from his pleading siren song. “Where’s your compassion?” he asks her. “No where you can get at it,” she tells him. In the end, “Doubt” deprives the audience of precisely the kind of comfort provided by priests like O’Malley: the need to know that there was someone who would take care of things and make the world a more secure place. The potent “doubt” we are left with at the end of the film is a reminder that priests are not messiahs but flawed (and sometimes tragic) human beings who nonetheless seek to bring faith, hope and love to their congregation.

European cinema has been better at acknowledging the complexities of the priesthood. “Diary of a Country Priest” (1951) reveals the very unheroic life and death of a curé (Claude Laydu) whose personal suffering and loneliness become instruments of grace. The film is unafraid to depict a minimalist priesthood, stripped of its glamorous ties to power, prestige and otherworldliness. The British film “Priest” (1994) explores with considerable depth the homosexual awakening of Fr. Greg (Linus Roach) and its attendant consequences after he hears a confession of a girl being abused by her father.  “Priest” is particularly good at using a prime activity of priesthood (the sacrament of reconciliation) as a plot device, an aspect that other priest films often overlook. Also, the ending features an ecclesial moment that few movies of this type can boast: an intense challenge to the gathered liturgical assembly to reconcile itself to Fr. Greg before celebrating the Eucharist.

Costa-Gavras’s neglected “Amen” (France, 2002), relates the true story of a disillusioned S.S. Lieutenant and a compassionate Jesuit, Fr. Fontana (Mathieu Kassovitz), who were unable to convince Vatican officials about the atrocities of the Holocaust. Astonishingly, the priest offers himself up as a Jew destined for a concentration camp. One of the film’s most chilling moments comes when Fontana’s cassock is discovered in the camp’s rubble with a yellow Star of David he had pinned to it.   

Hollywood, by contrast, has other missions for its priests. Occasionally, a film like “Doubt” will surface and delve into the rich complexity and ambivalence of the priest as a human subject. Yet they are exceptions. Two recent American films continue the trend of depicting clergy as one-dimensional figures, used either to further the plot or play into preexisting prejudices. I am thinking here of the mild mannered, zealous young Fr. Janovich (Christopher Carley) in “Gran Torino” (2008), and the diabolical Vatican camerlengo Patrick McKenna (Ian McGregor) in “Angels and Demons” (2009). 

Fr. Janovich performs his pastoral duties intrepidly, even inducing a very reluctant Walt Kawalski (Clint Eastwood) to go to confession. Yet Janovich comes across as naïve and somewhat simple-minded, and ultimately the film minimizes his pastoral importance by having Walt disclose his most serious sin to his new friend, Thao Vang Lor (Bee Vang). Meanwhile, the twinkle-eyed Fr. McKenna of  “Angels and Demons” is an Irish marvel who manages not only to be the perfect Vatican administrator, a devoted spiritual son of the late Holy Father, but also masterfully flies through the air in a Medevac, saving the Eternal City and every trattoria within a hundred mile radius from total annihilation. Just dial “M” for McKenna. Even though the camerlengo turns out to be a Machiavellian climber for the papacy, Fr. McKenna is just credible enough to make us believe that he can do anything. 

In the end, it seems, we just can’t let our savior priests go. Yet maybe in this Year of the Priest what we need is a little more Doubt.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
8 years 1 month ago

One more movie that beautifully details a priest's realization of his true ministry is "The Mission."

8 years 1 month ago

I realize that Fr. DeBona can't comment on every movie, but there is another that I think worth mentioning and that is "Mass Appeal."

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