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.