Recently, well, within the last year, I have seen several great films where a priest plays a central role…and a positive one at that. I’ve begun to wonder when portrayals of priests changed in film. Now I admit that I only have a small reference point of films that depict priests in a positive light but it is so pervasive today to cast the priest as a shady person that it has become almost trite.
One of my favorite portrayals of a priest in film is the 1967 film Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner. A wealthy white San Franciscan family of a progressive persuasion are forced to test their actual beliefs when their daughter comes home with a black man. Through the doctor is perfect in every way, the families balk. But the priest, an old friend of the family plays a comical but loving care giving role to his friends.
Another of my favorites is On the Waterfront with Marlon Brando from 1954. Brando, arguably one of Hollywood’s greatest actors, works with the Fr. Barry (Karl Malden). Fr. Barry is out of the church working among the dockworkers helping them in their cause against the dock racketeers.
Most recently I watched Angels With Dirty Faces from 1938 starring James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart with Pat O’Brien as the priest Jerry Connolly. Cagney and O’Brien’s characters were boyhood friends and hoodlums. Cagney went to prison multiple times whereas O’Brien became a priest and returned to the neighborhood. Cagney helps O’Brien’s connection with a new generation of hoodlums in the neighborhood but ultimately Cagney cannot leave his past too far behind. The film is powerful today still about ones choices and their lifelong effects. The ending leaves the viewer with a stunned question of was that real or Fr. Connolly’s wishes?
Another recent television portrayal was a surprise for me. The Grey’s Anatomy spin off Private Practice recently aired an episode that seemed to be a formulaic sexually active priest sleeping with the nuns. As a commercial neared it pointed toward the priest having contracted typhus/typhoid (not sure which) but with no ill effects for himself had passed it on to one of the nuns which implied some sordid affair. After the commercial the priest was confronted about the appearance of things and his response was that they were in love though they held their vows higher. They had never touched, only escaped to the kitchen to cook and spend time together. Well, I was surprised anyway because during the commercial break I was swearing about how poorly priests are portrayed. Perhaps he was still compromising his vows for fellowship, but was only really guilty of not washing his hands after going to the bathroom (which ultimate was the cause for spreading the disease).
Any positive viewing suggestions for preists in film?