In a critical scene of Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront, Father Barry (Karl Malden) confronts boxer-turned-longshoreman Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) in a tavern. Malloy is holding a gun and seeking revenge for the death of his brother at the hands of the gangsters who dominate the local union. The priest pleads with him to give up the gun, then knocks the boxer to the ground after he tells him to “go to hell.” Then Father Barry orders a beer for each of them.
I can’t remember where I was in my vocational discernment when I saw the film, but I remember that I wanted to be like Father Barry, who preaches to his union faithful that “Christ is here on the waterfront,” speaks the truth and decks Marlon Brando if it comes down to it.
Clergy life on film tends to these moments of florid heroism, as well as to caricatures of hypocrisy, stupidity, or mere irrelevance. But when a character with a churchly calling is at the center of the story, the stories (and the characters) can change in interesting ways. Rather than representing the highest, lowest, or most ridiculous form of ethical life as a foil to the central figure, the clergy character reveals deeper themes of commitment, doubt, and struggle.
A modern classic case in point is Ivan Fjelsted (Mads Mikkelsen), the delusionally optimistic Church of Denmark priest at the center of Anders Thomas Jensen’s pitch-dark 2005 comedy Adam’s Apples. Ivan–portrayed with Mikkelsen’s trademark sweaty intensity–tends a rural parish that serves as a halfway house for a collection of obstinate criminals, joined as the film opens by a neo-Nazi gangster named Adam. An emotionally brutal (and often hilarious) confrontation builds between the two as Adam resolves to strip away Ivan’s self-deceptions. I can’t bring myself to describe the ending, but it revolves around the choice–perhaps an inevitable one for many of us–between abandoning faith and seeing it painfully transformed. It also features the most moving use of a BeeGees song I have ever seen on film.
Adam’s Apples self-consciously echoes the Scandinavian touchstones of Karl Dreyer (whose Day of Wrath and Ordet belong on any list of essential clergy films) and Ingmar Bergman. But it likewise hearkens back to a 1951 classic of Catholic Europe, Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest. Bresson’s doomed curate is surrounded by similarly (though less colorfully) obstinate townsfolk who treat him as a functionary and an inconvenience. “All is grace,” he confesses at the end, after a dejecting struggle to be faithful. In Rome, Open City (1945), filmed by Roberto Rossellini in the fresh devastation of the war, the priest (played by Aldo Fabrizi and based on a real person) gains a more glorious martyrdom in aiding the Italian resistance to Nazi occupation.
American cinema offers its own clergy and religious protagonists, often within pulpier, more conventional plots. Robert Duvall’s deeply flawed preacher in The Apostle expresses, in sometimes cartoonishly exaggerated form, the best and the worst of American revivalism (though the film as a whole is inferior to Tender Mercies, which it closely follows). In the more obscure, but better, Into Temptation (2009), a priest in an urban parish (Jeremy Sisto) seeks out a mysterious call girl who confessed a plan to commit suicide. The melodramatic main plot is studded with the details, lovely, challenging, and tedious, of parish life: an old flame turns up to try to pry Sisto from his vocation; a parade of vexatious parishioners pass through his office; a colleague in an affluent suburb laments the excess of his parish Orchid Committee (“You have an orchid committee?”).
Each of these films weaves the daily matter of religious life into its action. The country priest has a fraught conversation while unvesting from Mass, Rossellini’s Don Pelligrini uses the ministry to the sick and dying (complete with crucifer and incense) as a ruse to aid the resisters, Ivan Fjelsted castigates an elderly parishioner for leaving for the bathroom during his sermon. Each places the demands of faith over against the stubborn realities of the world and sees which will yield, and how far.
These films remind us how critical stories are to explaining and practicing both our faith and our vocation, but also how mendacious a story can be. Father Barry never has to struggle with a building campaign, and Don Pelligrini never has to manage the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Stories end–happily or sadly, resolved or unresolved, with catharsis or stasis–but life goes on.
A rare and beautiful exception is Fred Zinneman’s 1959 The Nun’s Story, which follows the Belgian nun Sister Luke (Audrey Hepburn) from her entrance into the cloister, to her medical ministry in Africa, and into the testing of her vocation by the Second World War. More than the others mentioned here, this is a film about vocation. It is long and episodic rather than tightly plotted. The end of the story is not tasked with validating or invalidating the impulse that begins it. The film gives both the cloister and the world their due, without downplaying the conflict between them. It ends gorgeously, sadly, and with an ambivalence that may have kept this film more obscure than it deserves to be. Like religious life itself, it’s a film that refuses to give the answers that people are often asking from it.