Unless it’s on Bing Crosby, I’ve begun to cringe when I see a Roman collar in a movie. If there’s a priest in a contemporary film I’m prepared for him to be lascivious, greedy, cruel, ambitious, hypocritical, or inept—and sometimes all of the above. So when I ventured to the cinema last week to see George Clooney’s The American, I braced myself when Paolo Bonacelli appeared on screen as the genial Padre Benedetto.
The priest came off amiably enough at first: an old Italian with the sort of practical wisdom that comes from having been around a long time and, presumably, having heard a lot of confessions. Padre Benedetto realizes that George Clooney’s character, Jack, an American arms maker hiding out in a small Abruzzo town, is not who he pretends to be, and, without coming off as heavy-handed, he seeks his conversion. He can sense the emptiness in Jack’s heart.
Given the usual Hollywood treatment of the clergy, I was ready for skeletons to come tumbling out of Padre Benedetto’s closet, and, indeed, he does have a rather dark secret in his past: an illegitimate son named Fabio. But, surprisingly, Padre Benedetto doesn’t come off as a hypocrite or lose our sympathy because he makes no effort to disguise his transgression or excuse his sin. He also sincerely loves his son despite knowing of the latter’s involvement in various petty criminal enterprises. Padre Benedetto is a sinner, knows it, and still does his best to be a Christian and a priest.
Jack tries to dodge Padre Benedetto’s pleas to repent by bringing up Fabio, and instead of defending himself, the priest says, “I am not worthy to wear these robes.” He reminds Jack that his own personal unworthiness does not change the emptiness of the American’s life or his need for God. The priest’s reaction is human and realistic, the reaction of a Christian who has realized that he has made a failure of many important things in life but has still found himself loved and called by God. There’s something in Padre Benedetto of Peter, whose first reaction to Christ is “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man” (Lk 5:9) but who can answer the Lord truthfully at the end of St. John’s Gospel, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you” (Jn 21:16).
Of course, priests should not be having illegitimate children (just wanted my position on that one to be clear). But Padre Benedetto is still a sympathetic character in my book because of how he reacts to his sinfulness, because he’s believable as a Christian who prays and as a priest who sees himself, like Peter, as a fisher of men. And he’s a good character because, even though he plays a secondary role in the film, he has complex and subtle motives and reactions.
As I was thinking about The American and why Padre Benedetto came off so well, I contrasted him with a couple of other priest characters in movies I’ve seen over the past few years. So many of them are caricatures, like the doltish Fr. Horvak in the Oscar-winning but awful paean to euthanasia, Million Dollar Baby (2004). Fr. Horvak’s advice to the film’s main character Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood), whom he tries to talk out of killing his paralyzed student, begins, “Forget about God or heaven and hell…”
“Forget about God”? Really? That’s a bit like a doctor advising a patient, “I think you should increase your smoking.” There are bad doctors, of course, but some things push the bounds of credulity.
Or, there’s Fr. John Buerlein (Jeremy Sisto), the priest in the deservedly obscure Into Temptation (2009), who apparently was never informed about the Seal of the Confessional. (There are so many theological and pastoral errors in Into Temptation that it could be used as the final exam in seminaries, like one of those true/false tests where you correct the false answers.) My complaint isn’t just that Fr. Buerlein was a bad priest: it’s that the filmmakers could have created a much better film if they had attended half a year of CCD classes.
The American, by contrast, is subtle and understated. There’s a lot that goes unsaid in the film, and perhaps because of this it’s possible to imagine grace at work in the characters’ lives. It’s also possible, of course, to watch and not to see the grace. It’s not a perfect film, but neither is it about a perfect world.