(d.Marc Bernardout, USA, 2006)
London, June 21, 2007 (Peter Malone) - Sinner is a small-budget, independent American film. Its topic is Catholic priesthood, specifically clerical celibacy. On this theme, it comes out positively for celibacy and ministry, though it illustrates the struggles and pitfalls.
The general public of 2007 may or may not be interested in priesthood. However, especially in the United States since 2002, much of the focus on priesthood, especially in the courts and in the media, has been on child abuse cases. This is acknowledged during the credit sequences of Sinner with a voiceover collage concerning mostly well-known cases: Oliver O'Grady, Boston, diocesan bankruptcies. Apart from these two minutes and the police chief character in the film who voices some of the public's apprehensions about their children being altar servers and not becoming a statistic of abuse, pedophilia and abuse themes are absent from Sinner .
The film is of interest to Catholic audiences, especially to clergy. It might be seen as a case study as well as a Gospel allegory.
The screenplay was written by Steven Sills, who has a Catholic background, and directed by Marc Bernardout, who is British and Jewish, married to a Catholic.
Since the plot deals with a prostitute, Lil (Georgina Cates) who travels around parishes in what appears to be New England, seeking opportunities to compromise priests and blackmail them, it can be noted that there are a few provocative scenes and language which illustrate the character and the sometimes difficult situations for priests. There are some dramatic moments when the audience almost assumes that the priest will fall, only to find they have misjudged in anticipation. This is especially true of the last ten minutes of the film.
Perhaps it is more helpful to refer to the Gospel allegory first. This gives the framework for the plot with its plausibilities and some seeming implausibilities.
There are two priests in the parish of St Augustine (symbolic name with the film's subject of sexuality and sin). The pastor, Fr Anthony Romano, played credibly by Nick Chinlund, is around fifty, an ordinary parish priest that many clergy will be able to identify with. However, the parish has become run down in terms of attendance at Masses and a younger man has been sent to assist and revive the parish, Fr Stephen (Michael E. Rodgers). He is what is sometimes called ‘a muscular Christian' - and we initially see him jogging and, later, lifting weights. He is the earnest younger man, sometimes the bane of experienced pastors, with his rather rigid approach to life and morality, which he is not afraid of expressing bluntly. (Steven Sills' plot synopsis in the Internet Movie Database refers to him as a ‘fundamentalist' priest; he is not exactly ‘fundamentalist' in the accepted sense, though he may appear so to an American audience where the word is more frequently used than elsewhere, in his unflinching dogmatic manner. Sills interestingly refers to the prostitute as a modern day Mary Magdalene which gives his interpretation of the very final scene that he wrote.)
When Lil, the prostitute, sets her sights on St Augustine's, she attends Mass and listens to Fr Stephen's reading of John 8, the story of the woman taken in adultery and the reactions of the religious leaders
and of Jesus himself. She turns her attention to Fr Stephen since she has met the pastor and realises he is not an easy mark. Fr Stephen physically attacks her (‘to defend my celibacy') and is arrested.
The rest of the film, which takes place over the next 24 hours, illustrates the hard-hearted attitude of the younger, righteous man who is aggressive, calls the police, upbraids his pastor and condemns him in rash judgments and wants to get rid of the prostitute. He represents those who assume that they should cast the first stone. The pastor, on the other hand, is compassionate, down-to-earth in his experience (we are given brief glimpses of his pastoral work), shrewd but willing to take risks, who, when he gives his car to Lil, explains to her the origins of the word, ‘redemption', the buying back of someone.
Lil, over the brief time and her dealings with Fr Romano, trying to seduce, also trying to humiliate him, is eventually able to make some equivalents of ‘confession' about her childhood, her profession and an abortion. Clearly, Fr Romano is doing what he thinks Jesus would have done.
To further comment on the plot would include what the bloggers call 'spoilers' for those who have not seen the film. Suffice to say that there are many more strands in the character of the pastor, including some skeletons in his closet which have enabled him to commit himself to his celibacy. There is an unusual golf caddie companion (Brad Dourif) who brings some fantasy and overtones of angels and God to the character of the pastor. There is also the sub-plot with the police chief which is important at the end to show that the pastor is doing what Jesus did in the Gospels. The screenplay suggests that there might be more immediate redemption and awareness of redemption in the prostitute than in the zealous young priest.
The film has echoes of the British film, Priest , although the theme is quite different. It is also a reminder that there are a number of films which show priests and human weakness and repentance (thinking of Spencer Tracy in The Devil at 4 O'Clock or, especially of Robert de Niro's monsignor in True Confessions ). In more recent times, there have been some films with positive portraits of priest as dedicated human beings, from the priest in Ken Loach's Raining Stones to Edward Norton's curate in Keeping the Faith .
Clergy might be interested in seeing Sinner as a starting point for discussions about contemporary priestly life.