Father Brendan Flynn: “You have no right to act on your own! You have taken vows, obedience being one! You answer to us! You have no right to step outside the church!”
Sister Aloysius Beauvier: “I will step outside the church if that’s what needs to be done, ’till the door should shut behind me! I will do what needs to be done, though I’m damned to Hell! You should understand that, or you will mistake me.” [Phillip Seymour Hoffman to Meryl Streep “Doubt” (2008)]
In 1960 the film, “Elmer Gantry”, based on the controversial 1927 Sinclair Lewis novel, was released to the general public to critical acclaim and new controversy. A novel about a drunken womanizing Hellfire spewing huckster preacher caused such consternation in 1927 that it was not only banned in certain parts of the country, but also had people actually threatening to lynch Lewis. Hence, you just knew that once a film adaption was finally made, it would raise a new fire storm even though the Hays Office censors in 1960 eliminated certain elements of the novel like, for example, the fact that Gantry was formerly an ordained minister since the censorship code was against any negative portrayal of priests. Of course, the movie was still banned from being shown in certain parts of the country or restricted to only being shown to adults, and even had an opening written statement before the film was shown containing the following sentence:
“Due to the highly controversial nature of this film, we strongly urge you to prevent impressionable children from seeing it!”
However, that didn’t keep all impressionable children from seeing this film. I ought to know, Dear Reader, since I was one of those little impressionable kids who risked having my little mind permanently corrupted when I saw, “Elmer Gantry” with my parents when it first came out.
We saw it one night as part of a double feature (remember those days everyone, when you could actually see two films for the price of one). It was a truly memorable night for little nine-year-old me. Why, you may ask? Well, it was due to two things. First, the movie preceding “Elmer Gantry” was, of all things, the original “Ocean’s 11” heist film with the Frank Sinatra/Dean Martin/Sammy Davis Jr./etc. “Rat Pack” gang robbing Las Vegas casinos. I guess some smart theater owner weirdly thought “Gantry” was the perfect film companion piece for Franky and the boys’ high jinks in Vegas! However, since I saw it in my hometown of Baltimore, Md. which was also, at one point, the home of other illustrious and strange residents such as Edgar Allan Poe, H.L. Mencken and John Waters, maybe it wasn’t too weird after all. The second thing that made that night memorable was what actually happened in the row where my parents and myself were sitting that fateful night during the first few minutes of “Gantry”. If any of you have seen this film and remember, it’s Christmas Eve and traveling salesman Gantry (Oscar winner Burt Lancaster, giving maybe, the finest performance of his career) is drunk in a bar with a bunch of fellow drunk salesmen where his charismatic, and jokingly lewd storytelling veers into extoling the virtues and bravery of Jesus Christ with Gantry turning to a picture of an all-American quarterback on a wall and exclaiming, “You think that quarterback’s hot stuff? Jesus would have made the best little all-American quarterback in the history of football!” It was at that moment that two priests, who just so happened to be sitting in our row, hopped up faster than jack in the box and ran to the nearest theater EXIT door almost as if they were being chased by Satan itself! It was at that moment that all my little corrupted soul could possibly think of was, “Wow! Will you look at that!” Then I immediately turned my attention back to watching “Elmer Gantry,” which I thoroughly enjoyed for the rest of the evening. However, at this point you are probably thinking that, other than getting a better understanding of my warped psychological personality, when was I going to say what this month’s blog post was all about? Well, this month I am going to discuss movies and television series that portray priests, nuns, and other types of members or so-called members of faith in a less than favorable light, which is far more frequent than you may at first think.
Before “Gantry”, there were only a few films that fit into this category. One of the all-time best was “Night of the Hunter” (1955) with Robert Mitchum giving maybe, the finest performance of his career as a murderous psychopathic bogus preacher in the Depression Era South hunting two little children carrying ten thousand dollars in stolen money. Unappreciated then, this movie is now an all-time classic and one that I have praised previously. However, you also had colossal duds like “The Left Hand of God” (1955) made the same year with a miscast Humphrey Bogart playing a fake Catholic Priest in war torn China on the run from Chinese warlord Lee J. Cobb (???). Between Bogart looking like he’d rather be whipping out a gun rather than a bible at someone, and Cobb, who for once was not wearing his toupee and made to look Chinese with the worst “Yellow Face” makeup job since Katharine Hepburn in “Dragon Seed,” this fiasco was not only stupid, but even worse, it was boring! However, one much better made film which was also recently re-made in 2020 as a limited three-part mini-series was the terrific British film, “Black Narcissus” (1947).
“Narcissus” starred Deborah Kerr as Sister Clodagh, appointed Sister Superior to lead a mission of Anglican nuns to set up a school and hospital in a princely state in the Indian Himalayas and supported by the local ruler there. Located in a dilapidated palace high up in the mountains where the ruler’s father formerly kept his harem, she is ordered to succeed where a previous order of monks failed. The nuns are assisted by Mr. Dean (David Farrar), the ruler’s British agent, who Clodagh constantly butts’ heads with due to his subtle insolence combined with an open sarcasm at their efforts. As time passes, the nuns, especially Sister Clodagh and Sister Ruth (Jane Bryan) who also might be mentally unstable, slowly find themselves developing a growing erotic attraction to Mr. Dean. Even worse, the efforts of the nuns to achieve their goals becomes increasingly difficult due to their isolation, the exotic environment, and their overall cultural differences with the general populace. In the end, their efforts result in tragedy!
“Narcissus” was chock full of sexual eroticism, repressed desire, and tension which was conveyed mostly by suggestion alone. Directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger assisted by the brilliant Oscar winning cinematography of Jack Cardiff crafted a movie so visually stunning that it almost beggars’ belief. The art direction also won an Oscar with the white habits of the nuns contrasted against the bright colors of the exotic clothing of the inhabitants which instilled an overall other-worldliness. Cardiff was influenced by great painters like Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Vermeer and Caravaggio for this picture, and he utilized their various color palettes to create some striking visual scenes under Powell’s outstanding direction. This was fortunate since Powell’s direction of his actors left something to be desired. Bryan’s Sister Ruth looked and acted more nervous than Wile E. Coyote before getting flattened by a truck, and actress May Hallatt as Angu, the palace caretaker, came across more like an over the top, circus clown rather than an Indian native. As for the rest of the cast, they almost seemed forced into doing most of their acting non-verbally because Pressburger’s screenplay was so weak. Despite all that, this movie still works. Kerr is fine as someone slowly being stirred, not so much by faith, but by desire. However, maybe the best performance of them all is by Farrar. He generates real sexual heat with Kerr and also Bryan, so much so, that Director Powell cast Farrar and Bryan again two years later for his underrated film, “The Small Back Room” (1949) where both were even hotter together. Of course, the U.S. Catholic National Legion of Decency condemned this film and, since they had great sway back then, the British film studio removed any hint that these nuns were possibly Catholic rather than Anglican. They also removed flashbacks of Sister Clodagh’s life prior to becoming a nun where it was mildly hinted that she may have actually had SEX with someone before marriage (Shocking!). Once these changes were made, the ban was finally removed.
Since we are now on the theme of “nuns behaving badly,” an even better example of it was for the more recent underrated movie, “Novitiate” (2017). This movie starred Margaret Qualley as Cathleen, a young girl from a dysfunctional family in rural Tennessee who decides to enter a covenant to become a nun. It is run by Reverend Mother Marie Saint-Clair (Melissa Leo), who has not left the covenant grounds for 40 years and is a strict and stern believer of the old ways of the Catholic Church. Unfortunately, Cathleen enters the covenant just when Vatican II (1962-65) is underway which will send shock waves and change forever how the Catholic Church will function, and be perceived by others including Cathleen. During Cathleen’s single-minded pursuit to become a nun she finds her beliefs changing on an emotional, spiritual, psychological, physical, and sexual level while the Reverend Mother continually refuses to adapt to these changes or to diminish, at times, her brutal treatment of Cathleen and the nineteen other members in Cathleen’s group. Qualley is excellent as a young girl who moves from being someone extremely devout to discovering such (unholy?) things as masturbation, a Lesbian sexual experience with another novice, the self-harming of herself by extreme self-fasting leading to her physical collapse and hospitalization, and ultimately, even questioning what her role in the Catholic Church really should be. Leo (who should have been Oscar-nominated) is even better as someone who feels a personal hierarchical betrayal by the church, due to the advent of Vatican II and, though openly defiant, ultimately turns into a sad and pitiful human being watching her cloistered little world being torn apart. “Novitiate” has been criticized for its accuracy in how individuals in a covenant are actually treated, and there is probably some truth with that. However, it is also a fact that after Vatican II, some 90,000 nuns left the Catholic church. “Novitiate” is a fine film!
Now, just so I do not forget other faiths with its members behaving badly, let’s take a look at two other examples, one being a movie and the other a limited Netflix series which was based on a true story. The movie is “Disobedience” (2017) which takes place in an Orthodox Jewish congregation in North London. Ronit (Rachel Weisz) the long-time estranged daughter of the rabbi of the congregation returns home when she hears that her father has died suddenly. Arriving unexpectedly at the home of her childhood friend, David (Alessandro Nivola), she is invited by him to stay there for her father’s funeral. However, she then discovers that David is now married to Esti (Rachel McAdams) another childhood friend of Ronit. Unfortunately, it is soon revealed that the reason for Ronit’s estrangement from her father was due to him discovering Ronit and Esti had a Lesbian sexual relationship. Afterwards, he also had his daughter banished from their religious community (although he did not reveal the reasons why). Esti, unhappy due to her following Ronit’s father’s advice to marry David, was the one who originally notified Ronit of his death, and also because she wanted to see Ronit again. Now she wants to rekindle their relationship and leave David. The only problem: She is now pregnant with David’s child (Oy Vey!). Both of the Rachels’ (Weisz and McAdams) along with Nivola give top notch realistic and believable performances helped from the fine direction provided by award winning Director, Sebastian Lelio (“A Fantastic Woman”). Lelio capably tells a story of individuals who are not so much behaving badly, but rather rebelling against an insular and rigid Orthodox Jewish culture that is resistant to change.
The other example, also taking a similar perspective, was the fact-based Netflix series’ “Unorthodox” (2020). Here you had Esty (Emmy nominated Shira Haas), a 19-year-old unhappily married woman living in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish Hasidic community of Williamsburg, New York City. Originally abandoned by her birth mother, newly pregnant, and feeling entirely suffocated by the cultural restrictions placed on her in such a closed community, she flees with virtually next to nothing to Berlin to find her relocated mother while rejecting all of her prior beliefs. Unfortunately, her husband, by order of their rabbi, heads to Berlin with his cousin to try and bring her back (Double Oy Vey!). This was also not a portrait of an individual behaving badly, but rather how other members in a strict religious community were unable to accept others who were not willing to conform to their rigid views of how one should live with them. The best parts of “Unorthodox” are in how the general culture of the Hasidic community is portrayed, and not the factually inaccurate portrayal of Esty’s life once she arrives in Berlin. Both “Disobedience” and “Unorthodox” portray this Orthodox culture very well!
Now, moving onto something entirely different, lets’ turn to those in the religious community doing unfaithful things for stuff like horror and conspiracies! For example, you had such winners (??) as:
- “The Nun” (2018): Psycho Demon (Is there any other kind?) in the guise of a nun terrorizes members of the clergy in Romania. Unless you are Dracula, the only thing this movie is good for is to use as an excuse to exclude Romania from your future vacation travel itinerary.
- “30 Coins” (2020): Spanish supernatural horror series with an ex-convict/exorcist priest (I guess the Catholic Church lowered their quality control standards here), a Playboy Centerfold-looking veterinarian, and a muscle-bound hunk dimwit mayor fighting various multi-tentacled and orthodontically challenged creatures in a small Spanish village tied into a conspiracy linked to THE VATICAN ITSELF! (Yeah, that one again!). All you need to know about the artistic quality of Spanish TV is that this Dreck was nominated for “Best Drama Series” that year!
- “The Da Vinci Code” (2006): The cash cow granddaddy of all Vatican conspiracy films. With Tom Hanks (channeling his inner “Indiana Jones”) hunting for the Holy Grail, the sarcophagus of Mary Magdalene, and a good cup of expresso while being opposed by a secret cabal within the Opus Dei. Other than attracting the attention of fervent Catholics, general Catholic haters, and various pissed off members of the Vatican, all this movie proved was that, as a director, Ron Howard wasn’t even good enough to carry Steven Spielberg’s jockstrap!
However, there is one movie in this genre that I want to praise, in a guilty pleasure sort of way, which is the Korean horror movie, “Thirst” (2009). Directed by Park Chan-wook (“Oldboy”), it starred Song Kang-ho as a dedicated Catholic priest, who is not only in love with his friend’s wife, but also, after volunteering for an experiment to develop a vaccine for a deadly virus, is turned into a vampire instead when the experiment fails. If that isn’t bad enough, later on his friend’s wife (Kim Ok-bin) manipulates him into killing his friend who he falsely believed was abusing her. From that point on, as the bodies start piling up, their perverse relationship starts rising up (in more ways than one). About halfway through viewing this film I suddenly realized and blurted out, “Holy Hell! This is Therese Raquin! This is Emile Zola’s Therese Raquin!” For those of you who do not know Zola, the famous French journalist and novelist (and a major figure in the exoneration of Alfred Dreyfus), he also wrote some of the most erotically perverse and brutal portraits of individuals in his novels that have ever been imagined. In Zola, Chan-wook found the perfect writer to adapt for his equally perverse vampire film while also incorporating a hardy douse of gallows humor into the process. Both Kang-ho and Ok-bin give excellent performances alternating between the erotic and the terrifying. In “Thirst,” never has a priest acted in a more uniquely unholy light.
Lastly, there were a number of more recent fine films involving members of the faith acting badly. For example, you had “The Apostle” (1997) written, directed, and starring Robert Duvall in an Oscar nominated performance as Pentecostal preacher Euliss F. “Sonny” Dewey who, though devout, is a drinker, a womanizer, and ultimately a murderer when he kills the lover of his adulterous wife after being removed from his leadership position in his church. After escaping and assuming a new identity, Sonny is still driven by his strong faith and the need to work and help others even while acknowledging his faults. Duvall’s great portrait of a religious man’s duality between good and evil is what makes “The Apostle” a great film.
Another great film in this category was “Doubt” (2008), written and directed by John Patrick Shanley from his Pulitzer Prize-winning and Tony Award-winning stage play. The film starred Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius, a strict, old school, traditional nun and principal (and also maybe the psychic twin of Melissa Leo’s Mother Marie) at an inner-city Catholic school in 1964. She is already at odds with popular liberal Father Flynn (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), who is open to the changes brought by Vatican II, and who feels that the church, on a secular level, should connect with their parishioners more while also connecting with their parishioners’ children by listening to their views. Unfortunately, maybe Father Flynn is doing more than just listening once Sister Aloysius obtains information that appears to suggest that Father Flynn maybe is having an improper relationship with a student. Shanley directs this film very well assisted by Roger Deakin’s fine subdued cinematography. However, the real meat of the movie is in the performances and Shanley, a great playwright, draws incredible Oscar nominated performances from both Streep and Hoffman along with Viola Davis and Amy Adams in supporting roles. Watching Hoffman and Streep square off against each other is almost like watching two heavy weight acting title contenders landing verbal haymakers against each other to see who will be the last one standing. In their case, I think I would fairly call this one a draw, but with the viewing audience as the real winner!
To conclude, I could keep mentioning any number of other fine movies like “Spotlight” (2015) or television series like “The Young Pope” (2016) which have individuals of faith with their own personal Feet of Clay fatal flaw(s) causing harm. However, I think I’ll just close this by reflecting back to that little kid who loved “Elmer Gantry” then, and now, as a senior citizen, loves it still, while thinking of Elmer with that big S**t eating grin on his face saying…
“And what is love?”
“Love is the morning and the evening star!”
“Love is the voice of music!”
“So Sing! Sing out the Lord’s love!”
And then, I’ll leave it up to you as to whether you are smiling or not!
I know I am!