Three Priests and a Truman by Brendan O'Regan
television desperately needs an innovative and artistic spirit, and with
the Holy Spirit as guide this shouldn't be a impossible task. Relatively,
there are too many talking heads, too many uninspiring documentaries.
Sometimes it is only in feature films that we find this aesthetic sensibility
applied to religious matters. The Mission is a case in point. Here
is a film that is moving on an artistic and spiritual level. There are
powerhouse performances from Robert de Niro as the arrogant Spanish slave
trader exploiting the indigenous peoples of South America until a personal
crisis brings him to a dramatic repentance, and from Jeremy Irons, never
better, as the firm but gentle Jesuit, Fr Gabriel, who respectfully brings
the gospel to the natives. On a thematic level serious issues are teased
out in a creative way - a happy marriage of a literate script by Robert
Bolt (writer of A Man for All Seasons), expert direction of Roland
Joffe (director of The Killing Fields) and haunting music of Ennio
And while it has elements of an epic spectacle film it manages to convey
a sense of personal faith that some of the ponderous biblical epics never
manage. The latter part of the plot involves painful decisions to be made
when the Portuguese take over from the Spanish and want to undo all the
good work built up by the young Jesuits: de Niro opting for violent resistance,
Irons for the more pacifist approach. Like many good stories about the
past there was a resonance for the present - debates about liberation
theology, sparked from Latin America, were hot when the film was released
in 1986. Apart from the overall impact there were many beautiful set pieces.
I particularly liked the repentance sequence - when the de Niro character,
tortured by guilt and despair after he has killed his brother in a dispute
about a woman, chooses his own penance: dragging a huge bundle of his
armour through rivers and up sheer cliffs accompanied by the young Jesuits
on their way to visit one of the native tribes. These wordless scenes,
rich with a distinctive symbolism, are enhanced by Gabriel's Oboe,
the best known piece of music from the film.
There are some flaws however. Apparently the wily cardinal portrayed so
well by the late Ray McAnally owes more to Hollywood's vision of dark
authority figures in paranoia thrillers than to history.
Far more flawed is The Field , Jim Sheridan's adaptation of the
John B. Keane play. Of course the story is powerful and elemental, and
Richard Harris makes for a convincing Bull McCabe, but the religious aspects
are problematic. Sean McGinley as the local priest delivers the abrasive
sermon to the congregation, upbraiding them for their complicity of silence
about the murder of a young American. No moral theologian could have done
better, but in the Sheridan version his position is compromised as he
is seen to be siding with the foreigner, and in general McGinley plays
him as a sourpuss. In the Keane version, more convincing and less anti-clerical,
it is the Bishop who scalds the congregation and it is he, more credibly,
that shuts the church because of the cover up. Bull makes a snide (and
historically unwarranted) comment about the mean attitude of the clergy
during the famine, and the only F-word in the film is applied to the clergy.
That, and overly melodramatic ending convinces me that Sheridan should
have stuck more faithfully to the original Keane version.
On the Waterfront, the classic Elia Kazan film from the fifties
(and winner of seven Academy Awards) portrays a very different view of
clergy. The priest in his case is a gutsy social justice man, thus more
by instinct than ideology, as he works with the New York dockers who were
exploited by their gangster union bosses. Played by Karl Malden, Fr Barry
is a hard talking padre who takes abuse for his beliefs and fights on
regardless. The Bernard Herrman score may be overbearing by modern standards,
but the presentation of issues of conscience certainly isn't.
I can't find any flaws worth talking about in The Truman Show.
Here an effectively restrained Jim Carrey plays Truman, the naive but
likeable central character whose life is a global soap opera, only he
doesn't know that. It's the perfect conceit for a satire on media intrusiveness
which is handled deftly by Australian director Peter Weir. The god-like
mastermind behind the show is the significantly named Christof , though
this god doesn't come to join his people at Christmas, but is manipulative,
and has no respect for Truman's freedom.
The religious symbolism is obvious as Christof's voice booms from the
artificial sky of this tacky creator, as he is finally cornered into addressing
Truman, whose lifestyle may be his creation, but whose personhood and
humanity isn't. It's a film that rewards repeated viewing, even when you
know what's going on. There's an almost balletic feel to the proceedings
as we travel with Truman through his choreographed life. And it's a rare
example of a film suitable for teens that will amuse them, but hopefully
get them thinking also, infinitely more than the dross that's aimed more
specifically at the teen market.