Thursday, July 23, 2015

True Confessions (1981)

Eating in the best restaurants, drinking the finest wines, golfing with the rich and powerful: this is the life of a clergyman in "True Confessions," an adaptation of John Gregory Dunne's novel about the murder of a prostitute, roughly based on the infamous Black Dahlia murder in Los Angeles in the 1940's.

Robert De Niro plays a priest (Msgr. Desmond Spellacy) rising in the Catholic hierarchy of Southern California. Robert Duvall plays his brother (Detective Tom Spellacy), a policeman investigating the murder of "the Virgin Tramp" (a porn starlet who may have connections to the Catholic Church). Early in the film, Duvall's cop is called to a brothel where a priest has been found dead in a bed. Duvall was previously involved with the madam of the house, and they quickly agree to cover up the circumstances of the priest's death for the good of the brothel and the Church. The Monsignor and his superiors happily conspire with the cover-up.

It is only when it becomes apparent that murder may have been involved that Desmond seems uncomfortable with the church's connection with sleazy characters. Burgess Meredith (in his good guy Rocky's coach role rather than his Penguin persona) as Monsignor Seamus Fargo confronts Desmond about his love of power. De Niro responds that power allows him to minister more effectively, and, you know, help the poor. (We don't see him helping the poor, but rather schmoozing with the rich.)

There are many wonderful passages in Scripture about power and ministry (such as 1 Corinthians 1 where Paul wrote, "Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong."), but neither priest thinks to refer to them.

Eventually, Tom's investigation into the prostitute's death leads to his brother's downfall. But there are plenty of corrupt, wealth- and power-loving clergy to take his place.

We see a couple of church services in the film, and since the story takes place in the 1940s, Latin is the language used. Perhaps one could argue that the mystery of the rituals of the church rise above the petty corruption of the clergy. But even if I wasn't a Protestant this is not a church I'd want to attend.

The film is bookended by a sequence of Tom going to visit his disgraced brother Desmond, now serving in a remote desert parish. Des remarks to Tom, "No one ever visits a priest to share good news." It is Des, though, who has bad news to share. He is dying of brain cancer. Desmond as a priest never seems to have much good news to share. He is just one more corrupt person in a world where everyone seems corrupt.

The question every week is "Would I want to attend this church?" My answer would be an emphatic "No." It gets 1 steeple.

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