My mom hated to be called “Ms. Anderson”. She was very insistent that she should be called “Mrs.” and was offended when that “r” was dropped. This always amused me, because I think “Ms.” is so much more helpful. After all, you usually can’t tell someone’s marital status by looking at them. Guessing the correct gender is tough enough these days. But it is right and reasonable for people to be able to request to be addressed how they choose.
That’s why the priest in Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino drives me crazy for a good portion of the film. The twenty-something priest, Father Janovich, calls Eastwood’s Walt Kowalski, a man in his seventies, “Walt.” The first time he does, Mr. Kowalski asks the priest to call him “Mr. Kowalski,” but the priest repeatedly, irritatingly, calls the man by his first name. Occasionally he slips in the proper title, but too often he goes back to the familiar. It’s a matter of respect.
Respect is a major theme in this film that Eastwood directed, stars in, and sings the theme song. Kowalski served in the Korean War and worked decades in the auto industry. He believes he deserves respect., but his two sons (and especially his grandchildren) do not respect him as he believes he deserves. They treat him like a grumpy, perhaps senile, old man. His neighbors don’t keep up their houses, letting the neighborhood go downhill, which he considers disrespectful. It seems like one of the few good relationships he had in life was with his wife, but as the film opens, she has just died.
The film opens at her funeral. Mr. Kowalski is obviously angry at his grandchildren for dressing inappropriately for the service, one grandson in a Detroit Lions jersey and a granddaughter with a bare midriff. The grandchildren kneel and make the sign of the cross as they enter the church, most saying “In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” but one instead cracks “Spectacles, testicles, wallet, and watch.” Kowalski is obviously livid at the lack of respect.
Father Janovich gives a homily at the service, saying that death for Catholics is “bittersweet;” difficult for those feeling the loss but also joyful at the thought of a loved one entering paradise. Kowalski doesn’t seem thrilled with the sermon.
The priest goes to the gathering at Walt’s home after the service. That’s where he makes his initial overly familiar greeting of Mr. Kowalski as “Walt.” He tells Mr. Kowalski that Dorothy (Mrs. Kowalski) made him promise he would get Kowalski to go to confession. Mr. Kowalski tells the priest, “I confess I never cared for church. I just went to for Dorothy’s sake. And I confess I have no desire to confess to a boy fresh out of seminary.” And Kowalski moves along.
A few weeks later, the priest goes to visit Kowalski and asks why he hasn’t been in church for weeks. He again addresses the man as “Walt.” Mr Kowalski tells him he has no use for “27 year old virgins who hold the hands of superstitious old women” with promises of an afterlife.
But the priest doesn’t give up. He tracks down Kowalski in a bar and again calls him “Walt.”
“Damn, Padre, you are persistent!” Walt responds. And I think that’s the priest’s most winning quality. He made a promise to Mrs. Kowalski and intends to follow through on his promise.
The priest orders a Diet Coke at the bar, and Kowalski rightfully calls him on that, reminding him he’s in a bar. So the priest orders a gin and tonic. Kowalski again goads the priest about his ignorance and the priest says that his training has taught him something about life and death.
This really sets Kowalski off. He tells the priest he knows nothing, and that the sermon at the funeral was “pathetic.” He says he learned about death in the Korean war.
The priest responds, “It sounds like you know more about death than you know about living.”
“Maybe so, Father, maybe so,” is the response.
The relationship between the old man and the priest is not the major relationship in the film, though. That would be between the relationship that develops between Kowalski and his Hmong neighbors, particularly a teenage sister and brother. The sister, Sue, tells “Wally” (she’s not big on last names or titles, either) about the Hmong people. He asks why people from Asia ended up in Michigan. She tells him the Lutherans are to blame, since they sponsored the placement of many Hmong in the midwest.
Sue and her brother, Thao, have problems with a local Hmong gang, and Kowalski steps in, threatening the gang members. The priest hears about this immediately, because we learn that he works with the gangs. (Which adds at least one steeple to this priest’s Movie Church rating)
Eventually, the persistence of the priest earns the old man’s respect. He goes to the priest for confession, and the priest assures him of God’s love and forgiveness. Kowalski even gives the priest permission to call him “Walt.”
Father Janovich eventually won me, along with Mr. Kowalski, over. The whole first name thing still annoys me though, so I’m giving the priest and the church in the film just three steeples.