Abstract: Anton Karl Kozlovic had previously provided a taxonomic survey of Judeo-Christian sacred servants (e.g., priests, nuns, ministers) that covered eight thematic categories of the mundane holy. Using textually based humanist film criticism as the analytical lens, the critical religion-and-film literature was revisited and the popular cinema scanned to reveal an additional eleven thematic categories. These were documented and explicated herein, including copious film examples with associated character, actor, director and release date details. It was concluded that the field of sacred servants is a relatively neglected area of contemporary screen culture, but one that is illuminating, complex and increasingly vital to our understanding of institutional religion today. Further research into the exciting religious sub-genre of the mundane holy and the emerging field of religion-and-film was recommended.
British biblical scholar William Telford had sought to identify popular feature films that were of interest from a religious, biblical and theological point of view, but surprisingly, he missed the category of sacred servant films. That is, cinematic representations of the mundane holy such as priests, nuns, rabbis, saints, pastors, ministers, monks, reverends, preachers, imams, gurus, spiritual leaders, shamans, witch doctors, Zaddik, holy men etc. These earthly sacred persons (as opposed to the heavenly Holy like God, Jesus, angels etc.) are the professional religious class within society who derive their social status and/or livelihood from their religious vocation and other sacred service duties (whether liturgical, missionary, pastoral or educational). From the faith’s perspective, they are the worldly arms of the Divine’s holy organisation that are sacred and simultaneously common, everyday and ordinary (i.e., the mundane holy). These servants relate directly to the world as sacred functionaries, usually as intermediaries between humanity and heaven, or as ritual experts, or as proclaimers and teachers of the faith’s beliefs, values and aspirations.
Although this ordinary religious work makes them extraordinary compared to the rest of society, their mundaneness can astound us only if we seriously explore the diversity of their roles, functioning and occupational issues, especially as represented within the popular cinema. Regrettably, there is a dearth of academic research within secular circles on this topic, which typically goes unnoticed although sacred servants are very common figures. Albeit, usually as colourful and easily identifiable, diversionary screen-fill, or as an on-screen, shorthand code symbolising “religion,” “the sacred” (as opposed to the secular), “the good,” “the establishment,” “ideational orthodoxy,” “serious commitment,” “dedication” etc. In fact, priests in particular “have been a godsend to film-makers, and most male stars have played one at some time or another” (Halliwell 617).
Consequently, Anton Karl Kozlovic (Sacred) embarked upon a research program designed to honour this religious phenomenon by overtly marking this generally unmarked, unnamed and unaccented class of screen characters, that is, to make sacred servants more visible and amenable to further sociocultural analysis. Telford’s religion-in-film taxonomy was therefore supplemented with an explicated list of eight thematic categories of sacred servants that existed within the Judeo-Christian tradition. Namely: (a) mature, loving, passionate & dedicated; (b) immature, naive, timid, bumbling, ineffectual or clown-like; (c) fundamentalist, rigid, ascetic, puritanical, fascist or just nasty; (d) tent show evangelists & religious showmen; (e) struggling with vocational, psychotic, erotic or neurotic tensions; (f) breaking vows/rules/ethics, affairs, mistresses & children; (g) conflict & change: social, religious, political, spiritual, personal and interpersonal; and (h) scheming, corrupt, frauds & tricksters: real & implied.
Kozlovic (Sacred) had argued (and still argues) that the cinematic representation of these mundane religious characters within the popular culture can significantly impact upon the public’s consciousness in many undesirable ways. After all, the average person rarely comes to know their local religious servants intimately. So, they are not usually aware of how complicated these mundane holy characters can be, or how difficult their work is, or how costly their profession can be to them (whether economically, physically, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually). There are, of course, many rabbis, priests and ministers within serious literature ranging through St. Augustine, Chaucer, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Greene, Hardy, Hugo, Ibsen, Melville, Rabelais, Shakespeare, Trollope, West, White, etc. (Sussman). However, the general public’s view of sacred servants frequently mirrors what they see on TV, film and video, and so they commonly assume that such on-screen antics is “normal” religious behaviour.
Indeed, for “many people today, especially the young, popular culture is culture” (Simmons 254). This means that these cinematic representations can enter our collective consciousness and become “the truth,” but one that may be at odds with the mundane quality of sacred servants’ real lives, roles and higher religious functioning. For example, as Australian Jesuit Father Richard Leonard lamented when approached by a young couple to perform their wedding ceremony:
…her dress was modelled on Muriel’s Wedding [1994, P. J. Hogan] and that the reception was going to be “under a marquee, like in Four Weddings [and a Funeral (1994, Mike Newell)]”. The groom informed me he wanted music that was played at Edward and Sophie’s wedding “because it all felt so romantic on TV”. By the end of the conversation it was clear that the Church was a set, the ritual was a script, and I was a supporting actor in a matrimonial matinee…sacramental celebrations–[and] the way Catholic liturgy is portrayed on the large or small screen directly shapes people’s expectations of it. In an increasingly unchurched society, the most regular exposure to liturgical actions which most of our fellow Australians have is what they see on television and in film. When they come to our liturgical rites, they bring images of what the ceremonies will look like from the media. In this regard, their lives mirror those of their favourite characters – many will come to the church for a ‘hatching’, ‘matching’ or ‘dispatching’, with little or no long-term relationship with the worshipping assembly (Leonard 3).
Conversely, when the public is made aware of the antics of real religious servants through the news media, it is frequently presented in an unsavoury or sensational light. Regrettably, this negative media-mediated version of reality is more likely to get transposed to the silver screen in the long run than the positive and unsensational stories that make up the mundane aspects of their normal professional lives.
Cinematic Distortion as de Rigueur
Because of film’s dramaturgical biases, many religious stories tended to focus upon conflict, so much so that “institutional religion on screen is now routinely malevolent, like the CIA or the government” (Lyons 83). Alternatively, filmmaker’s focused upon the bizarre and the transgressive, usually erotically based, and then marketed their product as a form of ecclesiastical erotica with salacious undertones for a supposedly salivating public (Fentone). As Bev Zalcock argued regarding her review of nun films as girl gang narratives:
… the subject matter of such movies, and their often graphic (sac)religious iconography of flagellation, scarring and other sado-masochistic activities, inevitably invites some sort of cross-over from the serious to the scurrilous. There’s always a frisson on the forbidden in nuns’ stories, so that while every film discussed in this chapter is not an exploitation movie, there’s always a strong erotic (i.e. renegade) subtext in such narratives (Zalcock 143).
Nor were such transgressions limited to nuns and the contemporary cinema. Terrence Lindvall recently surveyed paradigmatic images of sexually suspect clergy in selected silent American films. During his discussion, he pointed out how: “Hollywood began to portrayal sexual concerns in a more Manichean than orthodox Christian way, as a battle of spirit and a body dominated by the desires of the flesh and the devil” (Lindvall 140). And if it was not a sex-obsessed religious cinema, then the concern revolved around the character assassination of the clergy. This issue affected Cecil B. DeMille’s silent Joan of Arc film entitled Joan the Woman (1917):
The main problem contemporary Catholics found with Joan the Woman was the villainy of the clergy. If Jewish groups were loud in their protest against films that pictured them as Christ killers, Catholics were equally fervent in denouncing movies that emphasized the dark days of the Inquisition, the terror of the cloister, the mystery of the Process, and the omnipresence of the rack and the screw. Bishop Cauchon [Theodore Roberts] and his shadowy cohorts in Joan the Woman were the very sort of ornately robed Inquisitors who riled Catholic sensibilities. The pictorial treatment of these clerics makes them seen as implacable as they are inhumane. Their posturings make the cassock and cowl the very image of cruelty, vanity, self-indulgence, and inscrutability (Keyser and Keyser 19).
Indeed, as Tom Aitken argued:
Movies have made a lot of mileage out of nuns and priests. In tackling this apparently ever-interesting topic, the English-speaking cinema has reflected the nature of the interest the subject holds for the secular world. Religious belief and experience are usually taken as read. What grabs the viewers is behaviour: amusing, naive, slightly ridiculous other-worldliness; practical devotion to good works; or sexual, or other impropriety. Grace and disgrace are both of interest (Aitken 1033).
However, ‘disgrace’ tends to generate more interest amongst secular audiences than ‘grace,’ thus earning greater box-office receipts for public sensitive filmmakers. One must never forget that Hollywood is primarily a business that worships at the altar of profit.
The distorting of the image of sacred servants was also a concern of Theresa Sanders. As she claimed:
… too many films are simply flat-footed in their approach to faith: overly simplistic or cynically dismissive of religious traditions. Members of faith communities are often portrayed as unthinking rubes who refuse to wake up to all that contemporary culture has to offer. Think, for example, of the anti-dancing preacher [Rev. Shaw Moore (John Lithgow)] in Footloose [1984, Herbert Rose]. Or, conversely, religious people are idealized into holier-than-thou cardboard figures who float through life untouched by the struggles that plague the rest of us (e.g. the title character in The Song of Bernadette [1943, Henry King]) (Sanders xi).
Or else Hollywood’s primary focus is to attack organised religion per se, regardless of denomination. As Michael Medved pointed out regarding At Play in the Fields of the Lord:
No faith is spared: in addition to the psychotic, repressed, relentlessly obnoxious and mean-spirited Protestant missionaries, the cast of characters also includes a foul-smelling, cynical Catholic priest and an alcoholic, whore-mongering, heavily-tattooed Jewish mercenary who offers contemptuous recollections of his own Bar Mitzvah (Medved 59).
Therefore, Hollywood’s role as the pop culture gate-keeper of religious reputations and the shaper of sacred servant narratives is even more worrying when images supplant substance, pleasure replaces reality, and perversity substitutes piety, and especially if the ecclesiastical facts are also out of date. For example, regarding Catholicism:
The cinema … finds it difficult to deal with liturgical changes of the last thirty years, with inculturation, and with the priest’s role as leader of the assembly’s worship. Even in recent films, priests do sacraments and congregations watch. The media reinforces a stereotype of the passivity of Christian congregations [which may not necessarily be true today] (Leonard 4).
Understandably, given the drastic decline in the number of people taking holy orders today, few feature films convey a sense of the Church as a viable job or a rewarding career path. Unlike “Otto Preminger’s underrated The Cardinal , which treats the church as a career institution, like the Navy in In Harm’s Way [1965, Otto Preminger] or the Senate in Advise and Consent [1962, Otto Preminger]” (Lyons 82). Nor do such negative Hollywood story lines inspire a desire to even try to make a career out of the Church. Indeed, the Church is more often portrayed as a nasty source of hierarchical oppression rather than a source of wonder, compassion and humor:
Thus, in The Mission [1986, Roland Joffe] it is both the Indians and the Jesuits who suffer at the hands of the Pope’s emissary, Altamirano [Ray McAnally]; in The Name of the Rose [1986, Jean-Jacques Annaud], it is the local poor and the Franciscans who are tyrannized; while in Priest [1995, Antonia Bird] it is the bishop [Rio Fanning] who is domineering and arrogant towards those who obstruct his career (Roberts 186).
As Michael Medved lamented: “Whenever someone turns up in a contemporary film with the title “Reverend,” “Father,” or “Rabbi” in front of his name you can count on the fact that he will turn out to be corrupt or crazy—or probably both” (Medved 52).
Given all the cinematic biases, distortions and character assassinations mentioned above, it is argued that it behoves the profession to take more seriously how this mundane class of the professional religious are being portrayed on the silver screen, whether for sociocultural analysis, grievance identification or reputation restoration reasons. Fortunately, some corrective steps are starting to be undertaken by the Churches themselves. For example, Jesuit Father Richard Leonard, the Director of the Australian Catholic Film Office reported that:
I have recently begun a religious consultancy to all screenwriters, producers and directors in Australia. I am trying to attend to the lamentable ignorance at that end of the media world and seek to make contact with anyone who might benefit from such a service. We may only see a small change in the cinematic portrayal of Christian ritual, but I hope it will better reflect our experience of liturgy as the summit and source of our lives (Leonard 5).
Another viable research strategy, as well as being a useful pedagogic step towards solving this religious problem, is to identify the various sacred servant themes currently absorbing the popular cinema. Especially in this “Age of Hollywood” (Paglia 12), where movies have become “the lingua franca of the twentieth century. The Tenth Muse…[that] has driven the other nine right off Olympus – or off the peak, anyway” (Vidal 2-3). That is, by expanding and enhancing the taxonomic categorisation of this contemporary cultural phenomenon at the level of everyday screen life.
Eleven Additional Sacred Servant Categories
This work continues the research begun previously by Kozlovic in an earlier edition of the Journal of Mundane Behavior. Textually based humanist film criticism was used as the analytical lens (i.e., the critical discourse must start and end with the films themselves—see Bywater and Sobchack). The critical religion-and-film literature was reviewed and the popular cinema revisited to reveal an additional eleven thematic categories of the mundane holy within the Judeo-Christian tradition. Namely: (a) arbitrating, explaining or engineering the miraculous; (b) personal stress, faith-in-crisis & leaving the Church issues; (c) religious conversions: faith, attitudes & opinions; (d) rivals: sacred & secular, physical & spiritual; (e) warriors against supernatural evil; (f) trapped by the inviolability of the seal of the confessional; (g) adjusting to the demands of being a pope; (h) priestly ruffians with hearts of gold; (i) missionaries & the mission experience; (j) priest-detectives & sleuthing nuns; and (k) religious imposters, fakes & holy disguises. Accompanying each of these categories are copious examples of representative films, plus character, actor, director and release date details for ease of identification and further scholarly analysis.
There is no overriding logical relationship specifically driving these eleven categories or the eight categories selected previously (Kozlovic Sacred). They were chosen primarily because of their existence, thematic significance, and frequency of occurrence within the cinema, but which itself is indicative of its popularity and therefore relevance and the power to affect the mass mind. Providing a clearer logical sense of their taxonomic interrelationships is of course another fruitful area for further research, as is exactly why they were of cultural concern in their day. Presumably, by research conducted within the contextual research tradition (i.e., methodologies primarily interested in examining the relationship between film and the world outside the frame—see Bywater and Sobchack). However, one suspects that the popular cinema frequently portrayed these mundane holy characters as exotic, exciting or in crises for profit-producing dramatic effect, after all, “the combination of attraction and non-availability is apparently a box-office certainty” (Halliwell 617), whereas no conflict means boredom, which is not a good Hollywood recipe for success. Nonetheless, examining the diverse range of cinematic representations of sacred servants allows their mundaneness to be elicited directly and/or its parameters defined in contrariety fashion because of their hyper-normalised representations.
Please note: No significance is implied by the sequencing of the following eleven categories; however, the films mentioned therein per category are sequenced historically for the sake of order and clarity. The following comments and listed films are not meant to be definitive or exhaustive. They are only indicative of the themes discussed, but which hopefully will generate further interest in the emerging field of sacred servants and religion-and-film (aka celluloid religion, cinematic theology, theo-film, film-faith dialogue).
1.0 Arbitrating, Explaining or Engineering the Miraculous
This thematic category focuses upon the rare, but more profound religious events of the sacred servant’s professional working lives, particularly amongst Catholics where it is a task unique to their profession—saint making and breaking. However, regardless of the religious denomination or theological tradition, the considered examination of the Divine supposedly intruding into the mundane world is rightfully in need of official Church recognition, confirmation or rejection. The religious servants involved usually assume the role, if not the official status, of the Devil’s Advocate to verify as much truth as possible this side of heaven (whether scientific, historical or spiritually based).
Conflicting interpretations of events, seeing-what-you-want-to-see, psychological disturbance, deliberate trickery, and political machinations are issues that tend to predominate throughout this thematic category. Even more frightening is actually finding an authentic miraculous event. Frightening because the Church never quite knows what to do with the truly mystical, except kill, politically exploit and/or appropriate it/they/them. With psychiatric science the way it is today, one cynically suspects that Jesus may not pass muster, and if clinically examined he would be accused of suffering from a God complex.
Some of the chief subtexts of this class of feature films concern questioning the very fabric of the faith and/or the foundational tenets of the Church itself. This activity is intrinsically threatening because it could mean that the Church’s current religious practices might be wrong. Just as worryingly, they may have been perpetuating lies for centuries, thus leading to potential destabilisation of the Church and even religion itself. Other subtexts revolve around using miracles as a means of bringing people back to the faith (i.e., religious proof of the Divine and the promises that the faithful have longingly been waiting for). The vexing question of chance versus Divine intervention can also raises its head (i.e., was it just an accident, or was it truly God, and a God who did not have a desire for PR exposure?). Then there are the self-interested responses of the very reluctant, anti-miracle Church hierarchies who may be more in fear of their reputations, jobs and future positions (if any) than the fulfilment of Divine destiny.
For example, the Church (and outraged villagers) versus the goatherd Nanni (Anna Magnani) and her supposed encounter with “St. Joseph” (Federico Fellini) in The Miracle (1948, Roberto Rossellini). Nanni claimed that she was “in God’s grace” (i.e., pregnant) because of him. The film’s salacious reputation was not helped by her “writhing so continuously at one point that the viewer assumes momentarily that she is actually having sexual intercourse–which must have been an exciting moment in 1948” (Brunette 100). The real miracle is that this film helped end the reign of cinematic censorship in America. The courts deemed film per se to be a significant medium for the communication of ideas and therefore censorship was a violation of the constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression.
Fr. Paul (Frank Sinatra), the fresh-faced priest of Saint Michael’s Catholic Church who was trying to account for a titular miracle, the mysteriously moving statues in The Miracle of the Bells (1948, Irving Pichel). Jesuit Fr. Marc Arnoux (Charles Boyer) assessing a miraculous healing in The First Legion (1951, Douglas Sirk). Dying priest Blaise Meredith (John Mills) investigating the cult of a dead partisan nominated for sainthood in The Devil’s Advocate (1978, Guy Green), and not to be confused with another advocate who literally worked for the Devil in The Devil’s Advocate (1998, Taylor Hackford). Fr. Cobb (Brian Pettifer) encouraged the leaking of miraculous X-ray evidence to the press. This data scientifically proved the remission of a supposedly incurable brain cancer, and so it would decisively aid the canonisation of the Blessed Edith in Heavenly Pursuits (aka The Gospel According to Vic) (1986, Charles Gormley). In today’s instant gratification society, who wants to wait a hundred years or more to find out the answer using traditional religious due process when things can be sped up using modern day science?!
2.0 Personal Stress, Faith-in-Crisis & Leaving the Church Issues
This thematic focuses upon the occupational hazards of the profession, the multiple stresses of the clerical job, and whether the religious servants are occupationally suited for the rigours of the daily grind of their mundane, mundane holy life. The sub-issues of overworked and underpaid clerics, dealing with the horror of encountering “real” humanity and all its tragedies day-in-and-day-out come to the fore here, and which sometimes leads the sacred servant into alcoholism as an escape route. Especially vexing are the faith-in-crises issues that resulted from repeated exposure to their pragmatic realities that may not jib with the official Church teachings, attitudes and behaviours, or which do not sit well with them personally, as human beings. This sort of battle is the intrapsychic aspect of their job conflict. This thematic category reinforces the idea that the religious life is not easy or plain sailing, that brute facts have to be dealt with (and sometimes brutally), and that a severe toll must sometimes be paid because of it. It reifies the fact that modelling one’s personal life on Jesus Christ can have many negative consequences, and after a lifetime of cross-bearing, it can eventually result in their own personal crucifixion.
For example, the AWOL Trappist monk Boris Androvsky (Charles Boyer) in The Garden of Allah (1936, Richard Boleslawski) who faced love directly, but he eventually chose to go back to his religious Order because of a greater love for God. The tortured fugitive/Priest (Henry Fonda) in The Fugitive (1947, John Ford). He was tricked into succumbing to his own compassion and baptises an illegitimate child, but he paid a terrible price at the hands of a military junta because of it—execution by firing squad. The embarrassingly self-conscious Priest of Ambricourt (Claude Laydu) in Diary of a Country Priest (1951, Robert Bresson) who acted more like death warmed up than a vibrant servant of the Lord, no doubt, partially due to his growing stomach cancer. Even his faith, the celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours and the sacraments were of no comfort to him. Troubled Belgium nun Sr. Luke (Audrey Hepburn) worked as a nurse in the Congo. She eventually left her religious vocation and the security of convent walls in The Nun’s Story (1959, Fred Zinnemann) to fight Nazi oppressors and escape her own personal demons. Rev. Howard Phillips (Anthony Quayle) was accused of homosexual advances in Serious Charge (aka Immoral Charge; aka A Touch of Hell) (1959, Terence Young), which was certainly a horrendous accusation in the gay, but not that sort of gay, 1950s.
The dissolute Priest (Laurence Olivier) in The Power and the Glory (1961, Marc Daniels) is hunted by a sadistic and avenging police officer. He is caught and sentenced to death when this whiskey-priest attended a dying man after succumbing to his own act of compassionate mercy, just like The Fugitive (1947, John Ford). Who said kindness could not kill you? The disillusioned Lutheran Pastor Tomas Ericsson (Gunnar Bjornstrand) in Winter Light (aka Nattvardsgastema) (1962, Ingmar Bergman) lost faith and hope and could not find any comfort in the sacraments in his bleak world (whether spiritually, emotionally or physically). Defrocked, alcoholic Rev. T. Lawrence Shannon (Richard Burton) in The Night of the Iguana (1964, John Huston) at least showed that there was the possibility of a meagre life after the priesthood, but nothing to write home about. AWOL Italian liquor-making monk Br. George (Walter Chiari) in Squeeze a Flower (1970, Marc Daniels) put a comical twist on the alcohol and absconding priest theme, especially in the land Down Under—Australia.
Mary Gilligan (Valerie Bertinelli) in the TV movie Shattered Vows (1984, Jack Bender), and despairing Fr. Donissan (Gerard Depardieu) in Under Satan’s Sun (aka Sous le soleil de Satan) (1987, Maurice Pialat) further explored the interpersonal problems of religious self-doubt and the usual conflicts associated with love, life and religious service. In the apocalyptic thriller The Omega Code (1999, Rob Marcarelli), former Catholic priest Dominic (Michael Ironside) had swapped religious sides and left the Church after hearing the confession of Stone Alexander-aka-Satan (Michael York). During confession, he admired the strength of will that Alexander demonstrated when he admitted to killing his own father, and so this cleric became his willing henchman-hitman with the promise of being the prophet-to-come in a brand new world order. However, it turned out to be a devilish trick and he was eventually king pinned by God’s two angelic hitmen.
3.0 Religious Conversions: Faith, Attitudes & Opinions
This thematic emphasises the power of the spirit and Church communities to effect profound, transformative change within people and societies. “Religion works!” is its catch-cry as it cinematically demonstrated the holy promises entailed (and implied) within sacred texts. It is the antithesis of those themes that implied that religion is a sham, or only a quaint, archaic social institution past its “use by” date. Many true believers use such films to show that God exists and can really change one’s life, if you would only give it a try. These films can act as defacto aides to evangelisation and soul-saving wrapped in palatable and entertaining packages.
For example, aristocratic Angela Chiaromonte (Lillian Gish) became a nun when her lover is reported dead (actually a prisoner) in The White Sister (1923, Henry King), subsequently remade as The White Sister (1933, Victor Fleming) starring Helen Hayes. Upon her lover’s escape and their reconciliation, she will not break her nun vows and return to her old ways because she is so impressed with the religious lifestyle. In Brother Orchid (1940, Lloyd Bacon), racket chieftain “Little John” Sarto (Edward G. Robinson) hid in a monastery disguised as Br. Orchid. However, instead of returning to the criminal world and his former life of crime, he decided to stay and adopt the contemplative lifestyle because he found it more agreeable to his now soothed soul. On-the-loose convict Joe Brewster (Paul Douglas) changed his troubled heart after an enforced companionship with Fr. John Halligan (Van Johnson) in When in Rome (1952, Clarence Brown). Thus demonstrating the intrinsic benefits of just associating with religious people, even if you do not believe their supposed religious rubbish. Similarly, Leon Morin (Jean-Paul Belmondo) assisted the religious conversion of Barny (Emmanuelle Riva) by his love, persistence and faith-driven actions in Leon Morin, Priest (1961, Jean-Pierre Melville).
In an even more profound personal transformation, former Libyan oil field tramp became Sr. Germana (Sophia Loren) when her lover died within White Sister (1973, Alberto Lattuada), thus again suggesting that religion can be stronger than sex. Former murdering mercenary and ruthless slave trader Captain Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert De Niro) became a tortured radical Jesuit priest in The Mission (1986, Roland Joffe). He had turned into a holy warrior for God, but whose religious militarism was not always on the side of the exploiting Latin American Church. Escaped convict Jim/Fr. Brown (Sean Penn) was on-the-run in We’re No Angels (1989, Neil Jordan) and so he hid inside a religious community disguised as a religious brother. As in Brother Orchard (1940, Lloyd Bacon), Jim/Fr. Brown liked the religious lifestyle so much that he opted to stay with the Brothers running the monastery rather than continue with his escape plans and furtherance of his criminal career. Yet, this life choice was not enhanced by his simpleton ways, and one wonders whether his decision was actually rooted in spirituality or stupidity. Regrettably, Hollywood frequently confuses the two attributes. However, given that the “stunningly stupid and superstitious” (Medved 53) brothers in the monastery mistook Jim/Fr. Brown for a distinguished Church scholar, he may have been perfectly matched.
4.0 Rivals: Sacred & Secular, Physical & Spiritual
Conflict involving religionists is the ruling premise of this thematic. Whether this conflict is between religionists and non-religionists, religionists and religionists, age and youth, Church and State, man and nature, civilised and tribal, or between different faiths, ideologies and political belief systems. It also touches upon the attendant themes of psychological instability and social incompatibility, with a hint of mischief thrown it for good dramatic measure. A significant subtext therein is the power of religion/God/the good/the holy to overcome all opponents, no matter how virulent, powerful or persuasive. After all, the good guys in black clothes must win out in the end sometimes!
For example, Pastor John Moore (John Bowers) versus cowboy Bill Hendricks (David Butler) in The Sky Pilot (1921, King Vidor). Fr. Edward J. Flanagan (Spencer Tracy) versus delinquent Whitey Marsh (Mickey Rooney) in Boys Town (1938, Norman Taurog) and its sequel Men of Boys Town (1941, Norman Taurog). The Anglican Order of St. Mary led by Sr. Clodah (Deborah Kerr) versus the Himalayan Mountains, Mr. Dean (David Farrar) and the local pagans in Black Narcissus (1946, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger). Village priest Don Camillo (Fernandel) versus Italian Communist major Peppone (Gino Cervi) in The Little World of Don Camillo (1951, Julien Duvivier) and its many sequels and remakes. Jesuit Rev. Charles Dismas Clark (Don Murray) versus delinquent Billy Lee Jackson (Keir Dullea) in The Hoodlum Priest (1961, Irvin Kershner). Savvy and persistent Catholic Fr. Keogh (John Mills) against cunning bandit Anacleto (Dirk Bogarde) in The Singer Not the Song (1961, Roy Baker). Fr. Francisco (Omar Sharif) versus the secular authorities in Behold a Pale Horse (1964, Fred Zinnemann).
Rural cleric Rev. David Wilkerson (Pat Boone) goes against gang leader Nicky (Erik Estrada) and his cohorts in The Cross and the Switchblade (1972, Don Murray). The eventually murdered Archbishop Oscar Romero (Raul Julia) against National Guard leader, Lieutenant Columa (Eddie Velez) in Romero (1989, John Duigan). American missionary Leslie Huben (John Lithgow) versus Amazonian Indians and Jesuit priest Fr. Xantes (Nelson Xavier) in At Play in the Field of the Lord (1991, Hector Babenco). Jesuit Fr. Laforgue (Lothaire Bluteau), a wild West, Jesus-like character versus ferocious Indians and the Canadian wilderness in Black Robe (1991, Bruce Beresford). This is not surprising considering Bluteau’s previous role as the Christ-figure Daniel Coulombe in Jesus of Montreal (1989, Denys Arcand). Polish nun Sr. Lucy (Gosia Dobrowolska) is sexually blackmailed by Michael Shanley (Chris Haywood) in The Nun and the Bandit (1992, Paul Cox). On a more comical note, Catholic Fr. Brian Kilkenney Finn (Edward Norton) vying with Rabbi Jacob “Jake” Schram (Ben Stiller) for the romantic affections of a beautiful woman, Anna Riley (Jenna Elfman) in Keeping the Faith (2000, Edward Norton). However, it was really a foregone religious conclusion because of the celibacy and marriage prohibition laws of Roman Catholicism.
5.0 Warriors Against Supernatural Evil
This thematic casts sacred servants as heroes, albeit, sometimes reluctant ones. Frequently, they are the Church’s specialists in this unique professional domain, namely, the nature, tricks and forces of Evil, especially in the form of demons and imps, including starring roles for Satan himself. Such malevolent entities are the enemy of God, Jesus Christ and the chosen, and are the tangible, if sometimes invisible inhibitors upon humanity’s spiritual path. These films verify that substantive religious content is truly for real, that there are powerful negative spiritual forces about the world, and thank God for these holy warriors who can successfully deal with them. However, this is not an easy job. Very hefty prices sometimes have to be paid by the participants, and only religious experts can do the job properly anyway.
This type of work is definitely not for amateurs, nor is it necessarily an enviable one for the nominated clerics. These usually peaceful servants of God experience palpable fear and have to invoke their spiritual warrior mode to deal with all sorts of horrible blasphemy before eventually triumphing (or not). Just think of the possessed Regan’s (Linda Blair’s) “cocksucker” invective and her masturbation-with-a-crucifix scene before the priests in The Exorcist (1973, William Friedkin) to realise the level of abuse these clerics can be subjected too. A significant subtext frequently built into this thematic category is that the Church is useful and essential today, if for no other reason than as an institutional haven against such powerful forces that the mundane world (i.e., traditional, rational science) cannot deal with. Therefore, becoming a true believer (possibly born again) is a good form of spiritual insurance against this source of evil, just in case religion is not really a load of rubbish.
For example, the priest-doctor Fr. Karras (Jason Miller) and exorcist specialist Fr. Merrin (Max von Sydow) in The Exorcist (1973, William Friedkin), who both paid terrible personal prices after dealing with a religious nightmare of head-turning proportions. Demon-liberating Bishop Garnet Williams (William Marshall) in Abby (1974, William Girdler), and fearful Fr. Brennan (Patrick Troughton) in The Omen (1976, Richard Donner) who got a lethal point while trying to make his religious point. Old, blind Fr. Halliran (John Carradine) was the priestly guardian of the doorway to Hell in The Sentinel (1976, Michael Winner), and performing almost the equivalent service of St. Peter’s gatekeeper role in Heaven. Religious warriors Fr. Phillip Lamont (Richard Burton) in Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977, John Boorman), Fr. Delany (Rod Steiger) in The Amityville Horror (1979, Stuart Rosenberg) and Fr. Adamsky (James Olson) in Amityville II: The Possession (1982, Damiano Damiani) were still battling Satantic forces and proving that evil, like white ants, keeps popping up when you least want them. The Priest (Donald Pleasence) in Prince of Darkness (1987, John Carpenter), and Fr. Michael (Ben Cross) and Fr. Silva (Trevor Howard) in The Unholy (1987, Camilo Vilo) had similar devilish times. A comic version of this serious filmic ilk was Repossessed (1990, Bob Logan). This starred Fr. Jedidiah Mayii (Leslie Nielsen) and Fr. Luke Brophy (Anthony Starke) as the spiritual warriors-cum-funny men. It had deliberately spoofed The Exorcist (1973, William Friedkin), complete with swivel neck and various forms of split-pea soup proffered as vomit. While Fr. Mayii was constructed as the religious equivalent of Inspector Clouseau, Maxwell Smart and Lt. Frank Drebin combined.
6.0 Trapped by the Inviolability of the Seal of the Confessional
This thematic focuses upon a unique professional hazard of the Roman Catholic priest in their role as the “icon of mediation” (Lyons 80), that is, their function as the intermediary between mankind and God. Although designed to guarantee confidence in the confessional process, the inviolability rule (i.e., absolute confidentiality) can also be manipulated to protect the guilty and perpetuate wrongs. This dilemma is a real one and deliciously exploited by filmmakers. In doing so, it begs the question of whether the Church is more interested in rules than justice, or in maintaining its institutions for long-term versus short-term survival. It also explores the various prices that have to be paid as a result of this dilemma (whether ethical, emotional, spiritual, legal, organisational or theological). A significant subtext of this thematic is that the job of a priest can be a very tough one involving very complex ethical issues (in addition to all their other stressors). Secondly, priests, like everyone else, can be manipulated to serve evil ends by the cunning, regardless if they have (or think they have) God on their side. These films also demonstrate that evil is truly cunning and that the Devil deserves his status as the father of the lie (John 8:44 KJV).
For example, Fr. Michael William Logan (Montgomery Clift) heard a murderer’s confession and then became the prime suspect in I Confess (1953, Alfred Hitchcock). Likewise, Fr. Neil (John Welsh) cannot reveal a criminal’s murder confession to the police in Confession (1955, Ken Hughes). Fr. Da Costa (Bob Hoskin) witnessed an IRA execution, so the killer confessed to him hoping to functionally silence him in A Prayer for the Dying (1987, Mike Hodge). Young priest Marc Massicotte (Norma Daneau) cannot reveal the identity of the father of an illegitimate birth in The Confessional (Le Confessionel) (1995, Robert M. Lepage), even after he had left the Church. In a comical vein, former health food store proprietor-cum suspended animation victim, Miles Monroe (Woody Allen) in Sleeper (1973, Woody Allen) gave his confession to a computer who instantly gave him absolution. But one was not so sure that his confession was truly confidential give the futuristic police state controlled by a fascist dictator that it operated within, or even legitimate given the non-sentient, soul-less nature of the computer-as-machine.
7.0 Adjusting to the Demands of Being a Pope
Not only can it be lonely at the top, but it can also be quite stressful, especially when you are the Pope and the official head of the entire Church on Earth. This uniquely Catholic thematic has been played historically, seriously, and for laughs, while touching upon sensitive political issues, profound religious consequences, and humorous personal idiosyncrasies that may not always do justice to their holy offices. The subtext of this thematic is: “Popes are human too!” and they can easily suffer all the positive and negative traits of mundane humanity, sacred or otherwise.
For example, ex-Siberian political prisoner Kiril Lakota-cum-Russian Pope Kiril I (Anthony Quinn) in The Shoes of the Fisherman (1968, Michael Anderson) was considered a radical for trying to emulate the Gospel-poor ethic of Jesus by giving away Church money to feed the hungry of the world. The religious establishment may want their Popes to be holy, but not that holy! Unless, of course, the poverty ethic can be used as a political tactic to bring people back to the Church. This was hinted at in Brother Sun Sister Moon (1972, Franco Zeffirelli) when mendicant priest Brother Francis-later-St. Francis of Assisi (Graham Faulkner) was given permission to form the monastic Franciscan Order and practise applied poverty. However, only as long as the rich, powerful and opulently dressed Pope Innocent III (Alex Guinness) did not have to do it and he still got to stay the boss of the medieval Church.
Medieval Pope Joan (Liv Ulman) reached papal heights in Pope Joan (1972, Michael Anderson). Not only was this film offensive to the Vatican, which has denied the historical existence of this supposed Pope, but it positively outraged them. Why? Because of her status as a female head of the (patriarchal) Church. Also, for being a rape victim, the mistress of a monk, who then crossed-dressed as a monk herself called John before being elected Pope, and then she got pregnant by the emperor-elect! And one thought being a regular Pope was tough enough. Pope Julius II (Rex Harrison) in The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965, Carol Reed) demonstrated the problems of being an Italian Renaissance man of peace who had to kill like a regular soldier. He was putatively a man of religion who had to frequently play politics and sell sacred offices for hard cash when needed, and who was supposedly a servant of the Lord, but who was more interested in his own personal glorification through magnificent artworks than God himself. But at least this pontiff demonstrated the decidedly mundane human attribute of impatience when he kept asking Michelangelo (Charlton Heston): “When will it end?” concerning the progress of the religious paintings on the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling. Not only was Michelangelo’s following answer apt: “When it is finished,” but it also provided the perfect retort for hard-pressed researchers of all persuasions thereafter!
Pope John Paul II (Albert Finney) in the TV movie Pope John Paul II (aka The Pope) (1984, Herbert Wise) and the incognito pontiff Pope Leo XIV (Tom Conti) in Saving Grace (1986, Robert M. Young) were more realistic in their depiction of papal woes, pressures and personal uncertainties on the job. Understandably, given the numerous Italian Popes for the last two-centuries, it is not too surprising to find the Italian cinema full of these screen characters, and comprising of various religious shades, political complexions and personal idiosyncrasies. A comic version of this filmic ilk was played by small-town priest-cum-Pope Dave (Robbie Coltrane) who got elected due to a computer error in The Pope Must Die (aka The Pope Must Diet(!)) (1991, Peter Richardson):
Once secure on the throne of Saint Peter, he pigs out on Communion wafers in a closet of his private apartment and discovers deeper and deeper levels of corruption in the worldwide activities of the Church … [then he] invades the Vatican bank and imitates Christ’s behavior to the money changers in the Temple (Medved 54).
Momentarily overlooking the Catholic character assassination, the really interesting question is whether the Divine is computer literate, and thus was the computer error truly a mistake, or part of God’s unfolding plan for humanity? God working in mysterious ways and all that.
8.0 Priestly Ruffians With Hearts of Gold
The day-to-day working life of a priest can be tough, very tough. So tough that sacred servants sometimes need to wear a carapace of gruffness to survive, and/or to be accepted by their local community as “real” men. This is the antithesis of the immature, naive, timid, bumbling, ineffectual or clown-like priest thematic documented elsewhere (Kozlovic Sacred). However, despite their ruffian exteriors and arm-wrestling manliness, one is not to be fooled by it all. Underneath this stern projection, they really do have hearts of gold that they manifest when it is safe, needed, and they are physically able to do so. As spiritual men of God they cannot not cultivate the good heart. In one sense, their working personas are just masks that they use during their earthly charades for God. What mask they wear (i.e., the flavour of their gruffness), is a function of the unique circumstances they find themselves in, whether as gun-totting Westerners or street-smart, inner city hustlers for God. A significant subtext of this thematic is that positive qualities are essential for the “good” priest, but at times, it may need to be safely hidden as a survival tactic and/or effectiveness enhancer.
For example, the no nonsense Fr. Mullin (Spencer Tracy) in San Francisco (1936, W. S. Van Dyke II) who was strong enough to take on bad guys and earthquakes. The prison tough Rev. Jerry Connolly (Pat O’Brien) in Angels With Dirty Faces (1938, Michael Curtiz). He convinced (?) his prisoner-friend Rocky Sullivan (James Cagney) to show weakness during his execution so as to dissuade (and morally strengthen) young punks who wanted to emulate the soon-to-be-dead tough guy. Two-gun parson Josiah Dozier Grey (Joel McCrea) in Stars in My Crown (1950, Jacques Tourneur) was literally God’s gun who used real guns to get his points across. Thug-fighting Fr. Barry (Karl Malden) in On the Waterfront (1954, Elia Kazan) who was more than willing to take on corrupt union bad guys in the name of God for his waterfront congregation.
Determined Rev. William Macklin II (Mickey Roonie) in The Twinkle in God’s Eye (1955, George Blair), although it is hard to see Roonie being anything other than Andy Hardy gone West. The boxer-priest and man’s man Fr. Gil Allen (John Derek) in The Leather Saint (1956, Alvin Ganzer) was pugnaciously tough, as long as it was for a good parish cause. Wise and crusty Fr. Collins (Trevor Howard) in Ryan’s Daughter (1970, David Lean) demonstrated that good advice is not necessarily a solution to others’ passion-based problems. Down-to-earth Fr. Da Costa (Bob Hoskin) in A Prayer for the Dying (1987, Mike Hodge) proved that being street-smart was no insurance against political manipulation by the IRA. While the equally street-smart American Fr. Bobby (Robert De Niro) in Sleepers (1996, Barry Levinson) proved that being a priest and religious was no insurance against being unethical, albeit, for a “good” cause (or was it?).
9.0 Missionaries & the Mission Experience
This thematic focuses upon a unique task of the religious life. Namely, the religious duty to spread the good news of the Gospel as biblically commanded in Matthew 28:19 (KJV): “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations…” Spreading the Gospel has been a paramount activity for Christians since its inception. This filmic ilk ranges from depicting the agonies and ecstasies of fighting the good fight, to exploring the unintended negative consequences of religious colonialism, especially upon tribal societies. Issues of faith, perseverance, pain, suffering, the clash of cultures, morality, efficacy, rivalry, psychological stability, political incompatibility, seduction (whether political, religious, ethical, ethnic or sexual) pervade this sub-genre in varying combinations and degrees of disastrous effect (e.g., see Presler; Rendleman; Roberts). The subtext of this thematic appears to be one of strife and trouble, back-breaking work for little or no reward, and that spiritual osmosis (via Bible-reading, touching, seeing, hearing) does no automatically work, as many missionaries fresh out the seminary seem to assume. However, every now and then God allows some little miracle to occur to sustain the reason for their struggle as his committed, mundane earthly proclaimers.
For example, the fire-and-brimstone preacher Alfred Davidson (Walter Huston) in Rain (1932, Lewis Milestone), and Americans Megan Davis (Barbara Stanwyck) and Robert Strike (Gavin Gordon) in The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933, Frank Capra). Journalist-cum-missionary Henry M. Stanley (Spencer Tracy) and explorer David Livingstone (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) in Stanley and Livingstone (1939, Henry King). Scottish Fr. Francis (Gregory Peck) in The Keys of the Kingdom (1944, John M. Stahl), and medical missionary Dr. Croydon M. Wassell (Gary Cooper) in The Story of Dr. Wassell (1944, Cecil B. DeMille). Sr. Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) and her Anglo-Catholic nuns in Black Narcissus (1946, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger). Rev. Samuel Sayer (Robert Morley) and Rose Sayer (Katherine Hepburn) fighting the good fight in The African Queen (1951, John Huston), and the priest capable of converting rough-necks Fr. Junipero Serra (Michael Rennie) in Seven Cities of Gold (1955, Robert D. Webb). Naïve, but compassionate and dedicated Church worker Gladys Aylward (Ingrid Bergman) in The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958, Mark Robson). Struggling missionary-nurse Sr. Luke (Audrey Hepburn) in The Nun’s Story (1959, Fred Zinnemann) whose primitive impulses reared up in a world of African primitives, eventually forcing her to go native in her own country. Cool Catholic Fr. O’Banion (William Holden) and wry, caustic, hyper-sophisticated Fr. Bovard (Clifton Webb) in Satan Never Sleeps (aka The Devil Never Sleeps) (1962, Leo McCarey).
Determined Sr. Superior Maria (Lilia Skala) and her dedicated East German nuns in Lilies of the Field (1963, Ralph Nelson), Protestant Abner Hale (Max von Sydow) in Hawaii (1966, George Roy Hill), and Anglican Fr. Mark Brian (Tom Courtenay) in I Heard the Owl Call My Name (1973, Daryl Duke). Anglican Rev. Charles Fortescue (Michael Palin) in The Missionary (1981, Richard Loncraine), Jesuit Fr. Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) in The Mission (1986, Roland Joffe), and Rev. Spellgood (Andre Gregory) in The Mosquito Coast (1986, Peter Weir) all found the real-world not quite what they had expected.
Missionary-as-tart, Gloria Tatlock (Madonna) of the Helping Hand Mission in Shanghai Surprise (1986, Jim Goddard). She tried to recreate Madonna of the touched-by-a virgin fame (but not the Virgin Mary) as a good girl, but she ended up proving herself to be a Mary Magdalene-figure before her conversion by Christ. Americans Leslie Huben (John Lithgow), Andy Huben (Daryl Hannah), Martin Quarrier (Aidan Quinn), and Hazel Quarrier (Kathy Bates) going through religious and relationship permutations in At Play in the Field of the Lord (1991, Hector Babenco). French Jesuit Fr. Laforgue (Lothaire Bluteau) in Black Robe (1991, Bruce Beresford) tried not to loose his scalp to Indians in the harsh wilderness. As an example of reverse evangelisation, Santiago (Cosme Cortazar) in Jerico (1988, Luis Alberto Lamata) was a Dominican missionary monk who arrived in the New World in 1537. However, he went native, renounced his Christian past and became a naked white Indian. It was the religious equivalent of Union officer Lt. John W. Dunbar’s (Kevin Costner’s) conversion in the revisionist Western Dances with Wolves (1990, Kevin Costner). The Church wants their sacred servants to identify empathically with the people they serve, but not to this extent!
10.0 Priest-Detectives & Sleuthing Nuns
This thematic is more of a Hollywood hobbyhorse than a practical reality of working religionists. Such tasks today are usually left to the more suitable professions (e.g., police, private detectives, lawyers). However, the sleuthing task as a religious activity was no doubt employed in the past as the need arose. The closest one comes today to demonstrating such investigate skills are the priests responsible for arbitrating or explaining the miraculous (see section 1.0 above), or the investigation of internal domestic matters relating to theft etc. within the Vatican and other ecclesiastical institutions. Hollywood however, gives these sacred servants far more interesting and dangerous jobs to do.
For example, Fr. Brown (Walter Connolly) battling thief Flambeau (Paul Lukas) who had stolen a diamond cross in Father Brown, Detective (1935, Edward Sedgwick). This was remade with Fr. Brown (Alec Guinness) investigating the theft of the priceless Cross of St. Augustine in Father Brown (aka The Detective) (1954, Robert Hamer). Nurse Sr. Mary (Claudette Colbert) solved a murder mystery during a flood in Thunder on the Hill (aka Bonaventure) (1951, Douglas Sirk). Medieval English Franciscan, William of Baskerville (Sean Connery) investigated a monastery murder in The Name of the Rose (1986, Jean-Jacques Annaud), but it literally turned out to be just for laughs. Although there is an increase in the melding between the religious and the mundane life when sacred servants act as teachers, educators, nurses, social workers, counsellors and psychologists, the professional gap between sacred servants and detectives does not appear to be closing up as rapidly, if at all.
11.0 Religious Imposters, Fakes & Holy Disguises
Inevitably, the institution of sacred servants inspires imitation by others, but who do so for a variety of justified and unjustified reasons. Traditionally, such religious imposters steal religious identities for purposes of disguise and other nefarious criminal reasons that sometimes borders on the neurotic or the psychotic. They deliberately exploit the status and positive reputation of religion for their own greedy, selfish or manipulative ends. In doing so, they unfortunately betray the integrity of the sacred office. In the worse cases, they bring disrepute unfairly upon the real-world holy vocation. The sins of these fake Fathers reflect badly upon the real, non-father Fathers and the real non-mother Mother Superiors, and thus justifies the biblical exhortation: “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing” (Matt. 7:15 KJV). On the other hand, it is also a fascinating thematic for it attempts to give a representation of a representation of what real sacred servants would do, and therefore, it provides an internal self-reflective look at their social role that can be illuminating, informative and funny. It is the closest this profession can come to vocational cross-dressing and thus seeing themselves through others’ eyes.
For example, the Convict (Charles Chaplin) who escaped from Sing Sing prison and masqueraded as a clergyman in The Pilgrim (1923, Charles Chaplin), or Rev. Sims (Charles Bickford), an escaped convict posing as a clergyman in The Sea Bat (1930, Wesley Ruggles). Singer Rose Carlton/The Frisco Doll (Mae West) was an on-the-run murderess who assumed the identity of the recently dead Salvation Army missionary, Sister Annie Alden (Helen Jerome Eddy), and then succeeded in revivified the Klondike mission in Klondike Annie (1936, Raoul Wash). She also stated some “very un-Westian lines, such as: ‘Any time you take religion for a joke, the laugh’s on you'” (Leonard 193). Upon being exposed for what she really was, she asked the congregation to build the Sister Annie Alden’s Settlement House with the money she earned the mission with her have-a-good-time evangelical tactics.
Card sharp Deke Caswell (Bob Burns) posed as a wandering deacon in Alias the Deacon (1940, Christy Cabanne). Master criminal thief Flambeau (Peter Finch) disguised himself as a priest in Father Brown (aka The Detective) (1954, Robert Hamer). Downed American flyer Jim Carmody (Humphrey Bogart) masqueraded as a priest to avoid capture in The Left Hand of God (1955, Edward Dmytryk). Small-time crook Augusto (Broderick Crawford) disguised himself as a priest to swindle the poor in The Swindlers (aka The Swindle; Il Bidone) (1955, Frederico Fellini). American Puritan revolutionary Richard Dudgeon (Kirk Douglas) was mistaken for the local minister in The Devil’s Disciple (1959, Guy Hamilton). Charlatan Fred Demara (Tony Curtis) impersonated a Trappist monk in The Great Imposter (1961, Robert Mulligan) amongst various other colourful characters. Murdering, self-ordained, fire-and-brimstone preacher Jonathan Rudd (Robert Mitchum) in Five Card Stud (1968, Henry Hathaway) was accompanied by his shingle advert that was egotistically inscribed: “God’s house — Jonathan Rudd, Caretaker.”
The outlaw Mexican bandit Leon Alastray (Anthony Quinn) in Guns for San Sebastian (1968, Henri Verneuil) was given sanctuary in a small church. He was subsequently disguised as a monk and smuggled out, but was later mistaken for the recently dead Franciscan Fr. Joseph (Sam Jaffe). Somewhat reluctantly, Leon assumed the role of spiritual leader before being recognised, and then he successfully escaped having done his good deed for God diligently. Dim-witted sexton (Vlastimil Brodsky) masqueraded as a priest for self-gratification reasons in End of a Priest (aka The Parson’s End; aka Fararuv Konec) (1969, Evald Schorm). Not only does he play a kind of Slavic Buster Keaton with his devastating dead pan look, but at films end, he tells the Bishop that he is seriously thinking of going into the seminary. And who said faking was not good for the soul?!
Womanising, self-ordained minister Joshua (David Warner) in The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970, Sam Peckinpah) cannot decide if he should live a life dedicated to hedonism or save souls. On-the-run prostitute disguised as Sr. Sara (Shirley MacLaine) in Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970, Don Siegel) played a scarlet sister wearing black. The Preacher/Rev. Willis Oaks Rutherford (Harry Belafonte) of the self-made High and Low Orders of the Holiness Persuasion Church in Buck and the Preacher (1972, Sidney Poitier) conned his way throughout the Wild West. The murderous saviour Preacher (Clint Eastwood) in Pale Rider (1985, Clint Eastwood) contrasted strongly with the humorous devil-worshipping Rev. Johnathan Whirley (Christopher Plummer) in Dragnet (1987, Tom Mankiewicz), and the fake faith healer Smoot (aka Fletch) (Chevy Chase) in Fletch Lives (1989, Michael Ritchie).
Escaped convicts Ed/Fr. Reilly (Robert DeNiro) and Jim/Fr. Brown (Sean Penn) took refuge in a local monastery in We’re No Angels (1989, Neil Jordan) and generated a variety of humorous moments. In an even more comical vein, London Cockney criminals Brian Hope (Eric Idle) and Charles McManus (Robbie Coltrane) disguised themselves as nuns and hid inside a convent school to avoid capture by the police and their former criminal associates in Nuns on the Run (1990, Jonathan Lynn). Singer Deloris Van Cartier-cum-Sr. Mary Clarence (Whoopie Goldberg) hid from the mob inside a convent in Sister Act (1992, Emile Ardolino) in the tradition of Klondike Annie (1936, Raoul Wash). She returned in Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit (1993, Bill Duke) to sing her way in and out of trouble for a second time. Phoney faith healer-showman Jonas Nightengale (Steve Martin) in Leap of Faith (1992, Richard Pearce) had the last laugh played on him. God made a joke out of his mockery, and left him stunned, humbled and a very changed man.
The sacred servant category is a fascinating and convoluted sub-genre of the religion-and-film genre (Butler; Fentone; Sanders), and a relatively neglected area of contemporary screen culture that is complex, illuminating and increasingly vital to our understanding of institutional religion today. Indeed, many more sacred servant categories and their taxonomic sub-divisions are still possible, and thus the field is ripe for further scholarly investigation. For example, there are a wealth of issues and processes to be exposed and explored regarding crusader priests, working sacred servants, priest-confidants/mentors, politicised priests, the power hungry clerics, the money-obsessed ministers, whisky-priests, heretical priests, ex-priests/nuns, the Apostles, biblical prophets, SF priests, alien priests, Western preachers, black preachers, medieval monks, historical priests, the Christ-figure priests, the saint-priests, cult gurus, various ancient priests, plus the numerous pagan, Asian and Oriental sacred servants. Given the recent Church crises occupying the Australian and American media, one expects to see a pedophile priests category arising in the near future.
This rich vein of scholarship has not been fully tapped to date. There is plenty of potential for profound insights into the sacred servant category (see Kozlovic Saint), and the whole field of religion-and-film, especially sacred subtexts (Kozlovic Bible, Aliens, Sacred), particularly the Christ-figure (Kozlovic Superman, Lamb, Christ-figures). Sociologically speaking, the comparative popularity of the sacred servant categories documented above and elsewhere suggests something very important. After all:
… what we as Americans [and the world in general] see in the movies and watch on television, and how we respond to it—whether we love it or hate it or reject it—is revealing about the nature of our own culture (Rosman and Rubel 223).
What exactly that is, of course, remains to be fruitfully explored. Further research into the exciting religious sub-genre of the mundane holy and the emerging field of religion-and-film is recommended. It is certainly warranted, long overdue, and increasingly needed, especially in classroom contexts as an example of applied cinema that is pedagogically suited for the proverbial children of the media in this undoubted age of the moving image.
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Author: Anton Karl Kozlovic is a PhD candidate in Screen Studies, School of Humanities, The Flinders University of South Australia. He is interested in Religion-and-Film, Interreligious Dialogue, DeMille Studies, Computer Films and Popular Culture. He is currently writing a doctoral dissertation on the biblical cinema of Cecil B. DeMille and is the co-editor of the forthcoming book Religion and Popular Culture. He has published articles in a number of journals dedicated to the studies of film and religion. His latest critical entries and book chapters have been published in The Wallflower Critical Guide to Contemporary North American Directors (Allon, Y., Cullen, D., & Patterson, H., 2001) and Sex, Religion, Media (Claussen, D. S., 2002).