Dir: John Michael McDonagh
With: Brendan Gleeson
Int. Confessional Box. Day or night. Father James (Gleeson) sits waiting patiently for a penitent. One duly enters and proceeds to describe to him the sexual abuse he received at the hands of a priest when he was a child. As revenge, the anonymous parishioner says that he is going to kill Father James as the original perpetrator is dead. He grants him a week to get his affairs in order.
After this startling opening we follow Father James on his rounds as he visits his flock, attempting to sort out their various issues. A jovial butcher has an errant wife who is having an affair with the (African) village mechanic. A local businessman, at pains to emphasise how expensive his possessions are, despairs at the emptiness of his life and resorts to getting pissed in his empty mansion. Another is resorting to increasingly exotic pornography in an attempt to assuage his sexual frustration. Meanwhile he has to deal with his idiot, Father Ted-like colleague, a coke-head atheist doctor and his daughter, visiting from London after a recent suicide attempt. He may or may not know who the threat comes from and his Bishop is non-committal, implying that since the individual hasn’t actually confessed to anything, Father James would not be breaking confidentiality if he went to the police.
All of this is set amidst the stunning, if bleak, Sligo countryside and Father James himself lives in a beautiful but sparse presbytery with his dog and his Saab convertible. He is, however, curiously detached from these goings on, faced as he is with a much bigger problem. For this crisis merely serves to bring to the fore his general predicament: what is the role of a good priest in a modern (Irish) catholic community. His presence seems to draw the disillusioned ire of the parishioners as much as provide a reassuring link with tradition. The publican informs him that his time is over and Father James suspects that all that is left of his people’s faith is a fear of death. He is treated with affection and not a little respect until he falls off the wagon and drunkenly shoots up the pub, whereupon the barman sets about him with a baseball bat. During a Saturday night dance, there is a pivotal scene at the church which the revellers stand around watching, helpless but mesmerised the following morning, invoking the imagery of Laurie Lee writing about the Spanish Civil War. It’s as if the people want saving from their own hopelessness but are suspicious of the old order.
If this all sounds very depressing rest assured it isn’t. These are universal issues but dealt with by Irish film makers in their own particular style. The result is a kind of hyper realism shot through with low key wit, “nine tenths gallows humour” in the words of the doctor. The interiors are warm and colourful and as previously mentioned, the exteriors are often breathtaking. None of the characters are hateful though and the malaise they feel is easily recognisable by the audience. St Augustine is quoted at the beginning: “despair not for one was saved; presume not for one was damned”, leaving only one question: does the good priest have to die for the sins of others?