Thursday, August 13, 2015

Last Rites (1988)

Father Freddie (Paul Dooley) stutters. So when he enters the priests' bathroom and sees a woman (Daphne Zuniga of Spaceballs and The Sure Thing) in the shower, it takes him some time to say, "Oh..... m

mmmmmmy..... God!" You would think that his speech impediment might work to his advantage. You might think that as a priest (or even as a Christian), he might use that extra time he takes to get out a sentence to think, "I shouldn't use God's name in vain, like the commandment says." But the priests of this film tend not to think things through, and Freddie is a model of contemplation compared to the film's hero, Father Michael Pace (played by Tom Berenger).

If you recognize Berenger's name, you probably were around for the eighties. He was pretty awesome in the decade, whether he was playing a baseball star (Major League), a cop (Someone to Watch over Me), a TV actor (The Big Chill), a musician (Eddie and the Cruisers) or the world's most evil soldier (Platoon). I suppose it was inevitable he'd also play a member of the clergy.

But Father Michael isn't your typical priest, of course.

He smokes!

He drinks!

He swears!

When in casual dress, he gets hit on by the ladies!

But what really sets Father Michael apart is his family relations: his brother and sister are a part of The Family, the Mob. Now one's family shouldn't necessarily keep one from being in ministry. However, complications from Michael's background do, not surprisingly, ensue.

The film opens with a couple having sex in hotel room. An elegantly dressed woman enters the room, shoots the man, and attempts to shoot the woman. But the woman escapes. The film's R rating is quickly earned. The police arriving on the scene call for a priest to give the dying man last rites. Father Michael arrives and provides the ritual which provides the title of the film. (I found it interesting that the police assumed the dying man was Catholic. In the recent Christian film, Do You Believe, a paramedic finds himself in legal peril for giving spiritual counsel to a dying man. Do police routinely call for a priest anymore?)

But performing last rites is the priestly duty we see Father Michael perform most in the film. There are people who are offended by the idea that absolution of a lifetime sin can be provided in a few moments before death, but Christians correctly point to the thief on the cross, who was promised Paradise as he was dying. I do wonder about the efficacy of the ritual when someone is unconscious or even already dead, but I'll let God worry about that.

Angela, the woman pursued by killers, just happens to wind up in Father Michael's confessional booth. She tells of her plight, and he agrees to protect her from the Mob. This is why she is in the church shower, to be seen by Father Freddie (you were wondering, weren't you?). Almost more worrisome than her complete lack of dress at that time is Father Michael's dress when Angela is  in the rectory. He sports slacks with suspenders and no shirt. Did I mention he gets hit on by the ladies?

Angela asks Father Michael to spend the day with her, but he says, "A priest has to work like everybody else." A montage provides a look at his average day of work: a wedding, a christening, playing basketball with the youth, and giving the last rites to a victim of a traffic accident.

He returns to the rectory to find the woman naked in his bed. Perhaps it is not the height of wisdom for the father to sit next to the bed and wait. We see her wake up, get out of bed, take the clerical collar off the priest and draw him into the bed. Whew! It was all a dream of the priest sitting in the chair next to the naked woman in his bed. Where ever do these ideas in these dreams come from?

(Spoiler: later in the film, the priest actually does sleep with Angela. Billy Graham said it was a practice of his to not ever be alone with a woman who was not his wife or a member of his family. This was to avoid temptation and false accusations. A cool, with it priest like Father Michael could never put such petty restrictions on his behavior.)

(More spoiler territory: it turns out Angela is not exactly who she claims to be. Someone in the film observes that Father Michael seems to be more Mafioso than priest. When he learns certain things about Angela, this indeed proves to be the case. The most telling performance of Last Rites by Father Michael is when the rites are not performed.)

While Father Freddie seems like a perfectly nice guy, and St. Patrick's in New York City, where the priests serve, is a gorgeous place, in the end the ministry of Father Michael Pace earns this Movie Church our lowest rating, one steeple. 

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