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Sunday, 9 July 2017

Broken, Dibley, Rev and Calvary

Broken has rightly been called a flawless depiction of a good priest. Jo Siedlecka writes that:

'Jimmy McGovern’s pitch perfect writing and Sean Bean’s hypnotic, understated performance as Fr Michael Kerrigan did not disappoint. This drama portrays one of those many good priests, who has really taken to heart the advice of Pope Francis to bring the healing power of God’s grace to everyone in need, to stay close to the marginalised and to be “shepherds living with the smell of the sheep.”

We are used to seeing clergy depicted performing their sacramental roles. But the huge amount of pastoral work the average Catholic priest does often goes unrecognised - the visits to the housebound, those in prison or in hospital, accompanying people in times of crisis. All those deaths, weddings, baptisms and funerals. All those problems. All that listening! This series has gone behind the scenes for what feels like a very authentic portrayal of life in a run down north country parish.'

It's worth pointing out, however, that seeing the dramatic and comedic potential of 'good priests' began in recent years firstly with The Vicar of Dibley followed by Rev. Set in a fictional small Oxfordshire village 'which is assigned a female vicar following the 1992 changes in the Church of England that permitted the ordination of women', The Vicar of Dibley has all the elements which characterise the phenomenon of the 'good priest' in comedy or drama i.e. a committed but flawed priest struggling with personal failings and the demands of contemporary ministry. Rev is a grittier reworking of the comedic value of the 'good priest' in being 'a contemporary sitcom about the daily frustrations and moral conflicts of Reverend Adam Smallbone - a Church of England Vicar who was 'promoted' from a sleepy rural parish to the busy, inner-city world of St Saviour's, in East London':

'It is an impossibly difficult job being a good, modern, city vicar. And, equally, it's a very hard job being married to one. Alex - Adam's long-suffering wife - does her best to support him, but she's got her own career as a solicitor to worry about. And she is no-one's idea of a conventional vicar's wife ... Every day throws up a moral conflict for the vicar. Adam's door must always be open to urban sophisticates with ulterior motives, the chronically lonely, the lost, the homeless, the poor and the insane. All are welcome at St Saviour's and Adam can't turn any of them away - even if they're clearly lying, mad or just very annoying.'

'Heavily researched and supported by anecdotes from a number of working city vicars and Church insiders, Rev lifts the lid on how the modern Church actually functions and what life is really like in a dog collar.'

Dramas featuring good priests continued with 'Calvary, a 2014 Irish drama film written and directed by John Michael McDonagh.' 'McDonagh explained the intentions he had for the film: "There are probably films in development about priests which involve abuse. My remit is to do the opposite of what other people do, and I wanted to make a film about a good priest."' He has also said, “The idea was a good man, a good priest, and what that would entail in a modern life where everything is ironic and insincere. Let’s follow a sincere man through to the end.”

'Calvary is a blackly comedic drama about a priest tormented by his community. Father James is a good man intent on making the world a better place. When his life is threatened one day during confession, he finds he has to battle the dark forces closing in around him.'

'McDonagh has called the film “basically Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest with a few gags thrown in,” and the film name-checks Catholic novelist Georges Bernanos, whose novel Bresson’s film is based on.

Like Diary of a Country Priest, Calvary is about a good priest in a small village where attitudes toward him range from benign indifference to contempt and abuse.

Yet where Bresson’s saintly protagonist was a wan young consumptive who could be wounded by something as minor as a saucy schoolgirl impudently flirting with him, Father James — played by the physically imposing Brendan Gleeson in a grizzled beard and cassock that makes him an even more formidable presence — is a battered Celtic warrior who seems impossible to rattle ...

it is Father James, alone among the cast, who offers a persuasive, integral, authentic example of what a human being should look like: too honest for cant, too jaded for naiveté, too self-aware for illusions, too solicitous for self-absorption, too fallen for self-righteousness, too down to earth for self-importance.'

The development of 'good priest' stories has gone hand-in-hand with reality TV series such as A Country Parish and An Island Parish which, again, demonstrate significant levels of interest in the demands of the priestly role within contemporary culture. This is a phenomenon that would reward more research and review as it would seem true the case that, rightly depicted or dramatised (i.e. with a honest focus on the commitment, struggle and integrity of the priest) authentic portrayals of parish life can generate significant interest and empathy. This is, in part, as Jo Siedlecka notes, because of the huge amount of pastoral work the average priest does; the visits to the housebound, those in prison or in hospital, accompanying people in times of crisis, all those deaths, weddings, baptisms and funerals, all those problems, all that listening!


Ray Davies - Broken.

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