Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Priest (1995) by Antonia Bird 

In which an attractive Catholic priest newly assigned to a parish finds his idealism (to wit: illusions) colliding with the church’s compromises and hypocrisy while becoming aware of his own forbidden homo-erotic longings.

Based on a story about as fraught with meaning and conflict as is conceivable--more than than we have a right to expect even of a melodrama--Antonia Bird's Priest packs a wallop that leaves one emotionally raw. It may be a very good rather than a truly great film (a circumstance I will attempt to account for below), but ultimately its value as a distillation of enduringly relevant themes outweighs its formal short-comings. Bird's courageous treatment of a fraught subject matter guarantees the film continued relevance.  

I was shattered by Bird's film on my initial viewing, which came during a period when being shattered at the cinema [thanks to films like Tavernier’s Béatrice, Téchiné’s Wild Reeds, August's Pelle the Conqueror, von Trier's Europa, and Rohmer's L'Ami de mon Ami] was a regular occurrence. I wouldn't hesitate to call it one of the most significant films of its decade, and certainly the most unflinching film ever made about the Catholic church's central thematic--if not by intention, by the accidents of history--: the love of man for man in all his valences. 

The script touches upon fundamental issues faced by modern faith communities. Beside the specifically Catholic dilemma of whether celibacy is God’s will, there are the questions of what a religious vocation constitutes; under what circumstances one is permitted to break the seal of the confessional; by whose power the church excludes; how far the authority of the institution extends into congregants' lives; in whose name and to what end it is served; what sin, loyalty, justice, and forgiveness signify, etc. A veritable smorgasbord of issues. The fact that it embroiders this quilt of issues with the thread of homoerotic desire ought to be enough to to get it banned. Its truth is blasphemous and unforgivable. (Rather like Christ himself in his day, come to think of...)

The film isn't equal to the depths evoked--and it would be foolish to expect it to be as only a dissertation or novel could adequately address the themes in play. It is the nature of the cinematic beast that it must unfold intellectual conflict as a series of dramatic episodes. Priest has the merits of an exceptionally powerful British television drama. Since that alone puts it head and shoulders over the vast majority of psycho-dramas produced as feature films, it seems niggardly to withhold the final half star. Put it down to my focus on style, a focus central to critical evaluation but mostly irrelevant to the 'moral of the story,' and if Priest is emblematic of anything it is the tradition of the ethical focus of the English novel.

Priest's shortcoming lies not in the performances, which are uniformly as good as they need to be, but its cadence. The impact of numerous scenes is undermined by sudden cuts away, as when Greg walks off into the countryside with his bicycle. To yield their maximal significance shots need to be held. If there is no slackening of tension it’s hard to sustain must less augment interest. Just as an over-stimulating personality, a hypo-manic film induces withdrawal, while a self-contained one draws us into it. Great film-makers know how exploit our desire to be absorbed by withholding information, the practice of diegetic entropy.  

So leaving aside the questionable selection of music, the basic shortcoming of Priest is the pace: the film seems at times to race through (or past) its plot-points, undermining our ability to take up residence in the interiors, landscapes and emotional states inhabited by the characters. It is, perhaps too much in the head and not enough in the body, a circumstance that invites contrastive comparison with Claire Denis' resolutely anti-expository mis-en-scène. The Andante pace was likely suggested by the amount of character needing development, and the fact of the inherently ideological/intellectual nature of the conflict dramatized, which necessitated a lot of dialogue. In film such development does not occur in privileged first-person narrative but through incident. 
We must be given time to absorb the import of developing events, a process augmented only if the momentum is allowed to abate periodically. The ideal cadence increases gravity by reducing mobility, allowing events to resonate in such a way as to implicate us in the proceedings rather than leaving looking in from outside the vortex. (To be made aware of one's spectatorship always indicates a failure of absorption.) The point of character driven drama is to transport us out of the role of the spectator and into the characters'--our alter-selves'--suffering. 

During the initial viewing when we're trying to figure out what happens to whom, the unstinting momentum serves that interest, but it short-changes one who returns to immerse himself in Priest's characters and atmosphere, which turn out to be only sort of 'there.' In her desire to be 'in your face' politically, to be iconoclastic and provocative, Bird seemed prepared to sacrifice nuances of character. It would have benefited from letting us get closer to the ordinariness of its personages, but this is only possible up to a point in a feature film. Priest could easily have been a two-part Masterpiece Theater production without exhausting its themes. 

That being said, what strikes one on second or third viewings may melt into insignificance on the fourth, whence the perspectival and tentative nature of this review and reviewing generally. If one never steps into the same river twice, how could one be expected to do so with film unspooling at 24 frames a second?


Great acting does not a great film make. Greatness arises out of the happy convergence of sundry elements of the film-maker’s craft. In addition to the fortuities of location, casting and degree of thespian accomplishment, film style emerges from of the interplay of cinematography, editing, and scoring (the audio dimension in general). Cinema is a Gesamtkunstwerk--totality in which every element co-determines the effectiveness of the other. I like to conceive of styles as ranging from minimal to maximal, a distinction which in no way corresponds to that between the artless and the artful. One can err on the side of stylistic poverty as well as stylistic excess. It is a supreme achievement of any art to conceal itself. A barrage of stylistic devices, on the other hand, tends to impress principally as a barbaric and tasteless over-determination of content. There are great examples of cinematic art at both ends of the spectrum. Both the use of flash-montage and hand-held camerawork at one extreme, and the aversion to cutting evinced by “slow cinema” at the other, constitute excesses of style that call attention to themselves rather than serving primarily the emplotment of a story. I associate any extreme with youth, which is constitutionally romantic and eager to impress. It is generally fairly easy to distinguish styles geared to impress from styles determined to erase any trace of style. The distinction partially corresponds to those techniques that raise the temperature of a film and those that lower it. One's preference for one or other convention is a question of age and temperament. 

Just as a Largo movement is ‘deeper’ than an Andante or Scherzo, a deliberately paced film gains the most traction in the least manipulative way, affectively speaking. It determines the depth of the groove into which one's attentional needle drops to drag along, so to speak. The editing of a film doesn't have to be a dazzling display or completely seamless. The conspicuousness of editing may reflect both a shortcoming on the editor's part and the cultivated awareness of the critic. A discerning body will detect what is effective, though it may also resist being manipulated to feel a particular emotion. (It's complicated!)

The amount of cutting doesn’t stand in any symmetrical relation to whether a film is fast-paced or contemplative. A fast-paced action sequence shot in a single take will still be experienced as a Scherzo, while a long drawn out conversation chopped up into shot/counter-shot will retain its amplitude (and possible longuer). Though these examples that may also constitute exceptions to the rule (viz, that single takes augment amplitude and therewith decelerate momentum while discontinuous montage, as the name suggests, accelerates the sense of forward momentum by contrastive means.) A preference for the long take indicates a reluctance to be forced into seeing confrontation by purely formal means. In other words, a preference for ambiguity, continuity, and holism (totality). 

If the criterion of stylistic maximalism (most of Orson Welles' films of the 40's and 50's, all of Godard and Hitchcock) were the measure of cinematic greatness, a lot of classical cinema [early Preminger, the works of Wyler, Besson, Ozon] would be out of the running. My own preference is for technique that does not call attention to itself. Kazan's America, America also comes to mind as an example of the exuberant maximalism that makes one forget the point of what one is watching.

I'm not suggesting cinematic maximalism is an exact concept or that it excludes either greatness or films I personally love. The case of Sergio Leone is a sublime exception to the rule, his Once Upon a Time films being in many ways the apotheosis of cinema qua Gesamtkunstwerk. 

Eisenstein observed that montage is the "nerve of cinema." And that "to determine the nature of montage is to solve the specific problem of cinema." I accept those observations as axiomatic. But if montage generates conflict, it does so, as Bazin notes, by manipulating film sequences and the viewer's perception. There is something at once dazzling/captivating and deeply off-putting about rapid montage sequences. Like hand-held camera-work, it is the technique that allows for the least amount of reflection. This makes it the most cinematic and least novelistic aspect of cinematic style

Psycho-drama is the instance of maximal codetermination of character development and plot. As such, it’s the most perfectly satisfying kind of film for adults. 

There isn’t enough consideration given to the comings and goings of people in the real world in Priest. We are sort of plopped down in the middle of things. It is a film about ideas told in the style of a thriller. There are no formal introductions to places and people, though there are establishment shots. They just appear. The film is blunt and self-consciously in-your-face. As it moves into its concluding 15 minutes there's a noticeable relenting of the forward momentum. Greg’s stay in the country with Father Matthew is a little eddy in the torrent of conflicts and confrontations. A moment of coming to terms. The heart of great melodrama is as much about re-acting as about taking action, and here we are given an opportunity to immerse ourselves in the dilemma faced by both priests. It is a welcome respite. 

In conclusion, my reservations are largely but not merely formal. Form is content, after all. As any work of art, a film must make an impression and can do so only by selecting some aspect of the world from a particular angle--thereby creating structure. A shortfall in the how of a film cannot but impact its what. However, Priest may be seen as a thematically over-loaded film whose construction, perhaps fittingly and by a necessary constraint, is 'merely' functional. But both of these considerations pale to insignificance in light of the tour de force this drama of tortured consciences unleashes upon us.

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