Grizzled old Father Ellerton (James Ellis) has been forced into "early retirement." But rather than disappear quietly into the woodwork, he pries the large crucifix off the altar, marches purposefully across town, charges over the neatly trimmed lawn toward the bishop's mansion and lowers the boom.
Enter Greg, the very picture of propriety and nothing if not a company man. True to form, the good father's first sermon condemns the scapegoating of society for the propagation of sin; despite what his flock might have heard to the contrary, individual weakness is responsible for the sorry state of the world. "We're not bloody social workers," he chides his left-leaning colleague, Father Matthew (Tom Wilkinson). "We're priests."
And so Greg goes about his ministry by the letter of the book. Slowly he learns that few parishioners share his passion for protocol; they'd rather dance a conga line around the open casket than confess their sins. Then he discovers that his partner in the presbytery is carrying on with the housekeeper (Cathy Tyson). "For God's sake, Matthew," the indignant Greg exhorts. "Moral guidance from a man with a bit on the side!"
Of course, even godless atheists know that pride cometh before the fall, and sure enough, Father Greg has a guilty secret of his own. Solemnly taking off his collar one night, he reaches into the closet (!), takes out a leather jacket and faster than you can say "amen," he's gone from a gay disco to the arms of Graham (Robert Carlyle), the embodiment of earthly desire who will prove to be either Greg's deliverance or the devil incarnate.
While marching its wayward Christian soldier through temptation, Priest manages to visit most of the other hot-button "crises" plaguing the Roman Catholic Church, from child molestation to corporate downsizing. The narrative arc wends back and forth between high melodrama and low humor. "Not in front of the altar, boys!" sings the tabloid headline when Greg and Graham are caught in flagrante delicto. "Oh, bugger the bishop -- don't take that literally," counsels Matthew as news of the scandal shoots up the chain of command. When Greg seeks refuge in a home for fallen clerics, he's met at the door by a woman in a neck brace and a "Meat Is Murder" apron, who then serves his meal of "dead pig" while he's cursed in Latin by a bitter old pastor.
Priest is steeped in the detail of Catholic culture, from the Eucharist to the stations of the cross to contentious theological debates. While this small-c catholicism keeps the film's spirit from growing weak, it never quite outpaces the sneaking suspicion that Priest is as deeply conflicted -- and as predetermined -- as its protagonist.
Director Bird, a lapsed Anglican, assaults the hierarchy on every front, unmasking the homophobia behind the proscription of gay clergy and the economics behind the enforcement of celibacy. Screenwriter Jimmy McGovern, on the other hand, seems to be reassuring progressive Catholics that the church is still theirs for the taking. Her central concern is the casting out of hypocrites; his is the psychological pain that accompanies guilt. So rather than an update of Hitchcock's 1953 I Confess, which revels in exactly how uneasy goodness can be, Priest swings between tortured flesh and unbridled polemics.
While this internal tension mirrors the thematic struggle between private agony and public example, it leads Priest to a dis-appointingly conventional conclusion. Greg never really has a choice: Unlike Matthew, whose love will be forgiven when he's defrocked, a gay priest can only share the body of another man through Communion. The film's message of tolerance, which seems like a godsend most of the way, ends up feeling like a curse.
A few words in passing about Deirdre Fishel's Risk, which shares Priest's anxiety about intimacy. Maya (Karen Sillas), a frustrated painter, has been going through the motions; her work -- which used to be bold and sexy, and used to sell -- never seems quite finished. Inspiration evaporates somewhere between the birth of an image and the completion of a canvas. When she's feeling up, her routine consists of modeling for a drawing class, getting "loaded on the house" at art openings and dancing the night away; when she's down, she blows off her friends and eats cold cereal in front of the television.
Then she meets Joe (David Ilku), who makes up in puppyish persistence what he lacks in social graces and marketable skills. Suddenly Maya finds herself responding to his irrepressibly impulsive behavior -- first he strips outside her classroom, then he steals a car and takes her to the country. She's still not working, but at least she's broken out of her rut.
Which is about as far as Risk goes, despite tight performances by Sillas (who's graced several Hal Hartley films and, most recently, Tom Noonan's What Happened Was ...) and performance-artist Ilku. Fishel tries to plumb the depths of Joe's psyche -- a murky well of petty crime, unsympathetic in-laws and multigenerational incest -- but fails to develop a believable passion between lovers that come from and seem to belong in two separate worlds, despite a common history of childhood trauma. Maya keeps looking up -- through her fingers, through the bare branches -- for some kind of inspiration, inspiration that can't come from Joe, who clearly has nowhere to go but down.
Priest opens Fri, April 7, at the Bridge in S.F.and the Act One/Two in Berkeley. Risk opens Fri, April 7, at the Roxie in