Lucas, the wayfaring Lutheran priest at the centre of the extraordinary Godland, is having a rough time of it. Far from his native Denmark, and charged with building a new parish in the hostile wilds of Iceland, he’s losing his faith and his mind at an equal pace. But that’s par for the course in films about his kind. Few vocations get a worse rap on screen than the man of God, whether it’s forbidden desires or invading demons disrupting his regular business. Played with slowly unravelling composure by a marvellous Elliott Crosset Hove, Lucas isn’t as dark-souled as some of his cinematic brethren, but he rather overestimates his own spiritual strength. Penetrating and darkly funny, Hlynur Pálmason’s film (now on DVD and streaming, if you missed its ravishing imagery in cinemas) finds him a formidable foe in rural agnosticism.
In The Mission, Jeremy Irons’s Spanish Jesuit priest succeeds in converting indigenous South Americans to his cause; it’s the Portuguese colonialists who get in the way. Roland Joffé’s stately film takes a somewhat romantic view of the missionary’s duty, even if it all ends sourly anyway. Following Portuguese Jesuits into 17th-century Japan, Martin Scorsese’s superb, oddly underrated Silence (ITVX) offers a more even-handed perspective on the missionary priests as colonisers, dividing its sympathies between their idealism and local people’s resistance.
Not that the priests who stay closer to home have it much easier. Take Paul Schrader’s thorny, gutsily acted First Reformed, with Ethan Hawke as an upstate New York pastor whose crisis of faith following the death of his son is aggravated by political and environmental concerns. A preoccupation with the climate crisis updates the film from the ascetic European classics that inspired it, including Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (maybe the greatest priest picture of all, though frustratingly unavailable to legally stream), and especially Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light (BFI Player), in which nuclear war is the existential threat undermining the word of a local pastor with a diminishing parish.
Bergman and Schrader’s priests both have fleshly desires to contend with as well. In Antonia Bird’s Priest (1994; Internet Archive), said desires are homosexual, and confronted with a then-bold candour that slightly overshadows its protagonist’s secondary struggle with maintaining the sanctity of the confessional booth when he learns of child abuse within his parish. The film was a lightning rod of 90s controversy, but retains some punch. Since then, of course, child abuse within the priesthood has become the hot-button topic. If films such as the Oscar-winning Spotlight and By the Grace of God foregrounded the victims, John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary portrays an innocent priest (a brilliant Brendan Gleeson) facing symbolic punishment for the actions of his brethren, while Pablo Larraín’s audacious The Club (BFI Player) focuses on the disgraced, exiled priests reckoning – not necessarily penitently – with their misdeeds.
Which leads us to the more straightforwardly villainous pastors, who have all the fun: Robert Mitchum’s silver-tongued psycho killer in priestly disguise in The Night of the Hunter, or Anthony Perkins’s amyl nitrate-sniffing, dildo-wielding stalker in Ken Russell’s bonkers Crimes of Passion (Mubi). Russell had form in this department: he’d already given us Oliver Reed’s rampant, horny but comparatively noble Father Urbain Grandier in The Devils (BFI Player), a delirious collage of church order in freefall. By comparison, Richard Burton’s drunken, defrocked lech in the humid Tennessee Williams adaptation The Night of the Iguana looks positively saintly; ditto Song Kang-ho’s literally vampiric man of the cloth in Park Chan-wook’s delicious erotic horror Thirst (Mubi).
Films about fully good priests, meanwhile, were more in fashion in code-era Hollywood. Take Bing Crosby’s chummy, all-singing, all-smiling man of the people in Going My Way, an Oscar-sweeping smash in 1944, and now a rosy relic of a more trusting time. In Alfred Hitchcock’s I Confess, compromising script elements were excised to ensure that Montgomery Clift’s handsome priest embroiled in a murder investigation remained squeaky clean. These days, the best a priest can hope for is to emerge unscathed from some light romantic yearning. It worked for Edward Norton’s clean-cut Catholic priest in his sunny, faith-clashing romcom Keeping the Faith, and made a sex symbol of Andrew Scott in TV’s Fleabag. The poor, put-upon tragic hero of Godland only wishes he had such problems.
All titles are available to rent on multiple platforms unless otherwise specified.
Also new on streaming and DVD
The Super Mario Bros Movie
The biggest box-office hit of 2023 so far is one parents may welcome into their homes with a mixture of relief and dread. More conventional and kid-friendly than the loopy 1993 film, this busy, hyper-bright adaptation of the video game is, rather like its source, designed for repeat play. More of a ride than a story, it’s short on charm, but to those immersed in its world, compulsive as candy.
An indie phenomenon in horror circles, Kyle Edward Ball’s debut feature uses bleary, lo-fi visuals and pointedly oblique storytelling to conjure the perspective of a child caught between nightmares and waking terrors. Hailed as the Blair Witch Project of its era, it’s impressively resourceful though not quite satisfying. Still, its murky video aesthetic plays better on a small screen.
The Driver’s Seat
Never previously released on any format in the UK, this lovingly restored curio is perhaps the strangest reach of Elizabeth Taylor’s off-the-wall 1970s era. A brashly fragmented adaptation of Muriel Spark’s already angularly avant-garde novel. Italian director Giuseppe Patroni Griffi doesn’t seem entirely attuned to the ironic nuances of Spark’s text, but Taylor commits absolutely, with can’t-look-away results.