I just finished watching the very interesting crime film, The Calling, with Susan Sarandon (the lead) and Donald Sutherland (in a supporting role). Ms. Sarandon is the local police investigator charged with tracking down a serial killer, who appears to be dispatching his victims for religious reasons. Donald Sutherland has a brief, but memorable cameo as a Catholic priest who helps Sarandon decipher a Latin clue in the case. At one point, Sarandon asks 'Father' Sutherland if he 'believes all that stuff." He replies wisely and wistfully, with a slightly wearied smile, "I used to. But times have changed. And now my faith is ..... well ...my faith in the church itself is at least wavering." Who of us can not say the same. Sutherland's portrayal is gentle, kindly, wise and sad and through his character's flickering faith we see glimmers of a deeper hope, but only for brief moments.
That leads me to one of the outstanding films of the year, Calvary, with Brendan Gleeson portraying a wearied but stalwart Catholic priest in a small Irish village. It is an outstanding portrayal of a Catholic priest of profound, unwavering faith in the Divine, but very little faith at all in the institutional Church he serves. Another example of a wavering faith in the institution. Gleeson encounters a myriad set of problems in his small village, including the despair of his own daughter whom he fathered as a married man before his wife's death and his entrance into the priesthood. Gleeson also must deal with the scandal of the sex abuse crisis right within his own parish, and the full horror of the Irish scandal hits home. It is a great performance of a man of faith struggling on in a time when God is silent and the lights in the Church seem to have been extinguished. Yet something remains out of the emptiness and the silence, something that gives Gleeson's character the inner strength to make the necessary and final sacrifice. So good I saw it twice and will see it again.
And that in turn leads me to John Boyle's deeply affecting novel examining the Irish Catholic sex abuse scandal through the life of one Irish priest = A History of Loneliness. It is a beautiful, sad book written with exquisite simplicity, economy and grace. The incidents of abuse Father Odran Yates encounters in his priestly ministry are seamlessly interwoven into all the other aspects of his life. We follow his struggles to deal with his mother dying of cancer, his sister stricken with premature dementia, his seminary roommate accused of endless crimes of sexual molestation of young boys - while being moved from parish to parish. Most horrifying of all - in a scene that is actually not described at all, but only hinted at - Father Yates own priestly vocation began after a moment of sexual abuse. After catching him in his bedroom lying on top of a local girl, Odran's mother invites the local parish priest to have a talk with the boy. The priest asks him, "Are you a dirty, dirty, boy, Odran, are you, are you?" with a lascivious prurientt interest that is chilling. Then the priest places one hand on his knee with the words, "It's just a bit of fun," and the scene fades out. Next we see Odran walking downstairs and into his kitchen after the priest has left. His mother, who had recently lost her husband and Odran's father, when he committed suicide. His mother greets him with glowing joy and she recounts the news, "Oh thank the Lord, Odran. Father has confirmed my deepest belief. You do have a vocation to the priesthood." And Odran simply accepts the judgement in a rather passive manner, goes off to the seminary, discovers the routine life suits him and becomes ordained and lives a quiet life as a librarian in a boys boarding school. This incident occurs early in the book and the reader is haunted by it all throughout the remainder of the story. Occasionally, Odran as the narrator returns to the scene, but only to reiterate that it is too horrible for him to either contemplate ir or describe it. And yet it formed part of the foundation of his vocation - a vocation, as his roommate points out to him at the end of the book - is no vocation at all, but only an escape. Odran has never developed a mature religious faith in anything, he has simply accepted his life and it's routine passively without question, all the moral decisions having been made for him. I found this novel, in its understated elegance, to be one of the most devastating indictments of the abuse scandal in the Church one could hope to read, and certainly the most outstanding treatment of the abuse scandal in the Irish Church. I have to say, though, I remained somewhat puzzled by Boyne's authorial choice to use a passive narrator, one who does not act decisively in his own life, but simply lets events and other persons decide for him. This leaves a certain emptiness at the core of the book which I don't think is very satisfying fictionally. Possibly the author is making some sort of statement about the immaturity of faith of a number of practicing Catholic priests.
One interesting segment of the book, however, deals with Odran's years in Rome as a student, when he is assigned the very prestigious job of serving evening tea to none other than the Pope himself. At first it is Paul IV (just beatified today). And during his term of service, Odran becomes infatuated with a young waitress at a cafe near the Vatican and faces the first real crisis of his vocation. He visits her nearly everyday and there encounters the Patriarch of Venice, Cardinal Albino Luciani. Boyne is at pains to depict Luciani as a genuinely saintly, friendly, wise and compassionate man, who befriends the young seminarian and advises him on his struggles. When Paul IV dies and Luciani is elected as Pope John Paul I, Odran continues his duties of serving the Pope an evening hot drink....until one fateful evening, having an emotional crisis of faith, he misses his duties - for the only time in his tenure. And it is that very night that Luciani is poisoned. I found this a very interesting aspect of Boyne's novel, that he subscribes to the 'theory' that Luciani was indeed murdered and that Father Luciani, John Paul I, is the only decent, genuinely spiritual Catholic figure in the entire book. What is the message there, I wonder? Luciani is the only light Boyne as author allows to shine within the Roman Catholic Church of his novel. Interesting. A strange and troubling book, as it indeed should be, given its subject matter. What makes it so impressive is that the incidents and stories of sexual abuse, as I noted above, are woven so seamlessly and naturally into the tapestry of a whole human life, the life of Odran Yates, a boy who never quite grew up into a man and who's path in life was set by a horrific moment of priestly sexual abuse.
More reviews tomorrow of the images of the Blessed Mother in recent Czech films.