Father Morris walks into the small office behind his church’s confessional, dons the thin purple stole (vestments) of his office, and explains what he’s about to do.
“Confession,” he says directly to the camera, “the reconciliation of the penitent.”
It’s when he gets to professing his respect for the sacrament, “this profound act of blah blah blah,” that he gives up his game.
“I hate it.”
He knows what it’s for, “contrition,” knows its role in Catholicism, unlike many of us whose “sole source of information on Catholicism is the movies.” But three hours of “extra confession tie every Friday night,” decreed by his bishop, means he’s “trapped in this box for hours on end listening to the inane regurgitation of rote sins.”
And that doesn’t prompt boredom. Oh no. “Genuine hate” is more like it.
After watching “Surviving Confession,” I empathize with this padre in personal crisis. From its “Bachelor/Big Brother” style priest “confessing” to the camera, to Father Morris’s (Clayton Newrow) asides, “translating” the “inane” lists of pseudo sins his parishioners recite — road rage, etc. — with “He also cheats on his wife.” — “Surviving” journeys from surviving boredom to seething resentment.
Which is to say, it goes way wrong long before the melodrama dissolves into bad — REALLY bad — arch, soap-operatic theater in the third act.
“Hate?” I’ll see your “hate” and ante up to “despise.”
It’s a profane, loopy and misguided “priest’s moment of truth/moments of crisis” drama under the illusion it’s witty. Things are off the rails in an instant with the lazy/cutesy “address the camera” devices, the cloying admission that “It doesn’t take ‘Father Brown’ to figure” out the guy who is cheating on his wife, and insipid insistence on explaining who created “Father Brown” for the G.K. Chesteron/PBS-phobic and juvenile.
As if anybody under 70 would be drawn to this. And anybody over 70 would figure out life’s too short faster than you can say “Three Hail Marys.”
The Nathan Shane Miller script treats us to a little dry drollery, Father Morris trying to cajole an admission of adultery out of the adulterer, a quick-motion montage of sleepily-lit face-to-face (nobody uses the confessional “booth”) confessions.
And then the “teen” girl who says she’s 21 (Jessica Lynn Parsons) shows up and upends the Good Father’s night. She’s in a skimpy top with most of her brassiere showing, ripped jeans, Converse high tops, pierced nose, tattoos, snapping gum.
She’s got questions.
“You have rules, though, right? You can’t tell anyone what’s said here, right? Even if it’s illegal? Even if I was like, Hitler?
“The seal of confession is absolute.” Then, because Father Morris has a sense of humor, “Have you been…killing a lot of Jews?”
Priests are good at sizing people up, and he’s pretty sure of what she’s full of straight away. Might even tell the camera, as Father Morris has no qualms about profanity.
But the young woman refuses to leave and takes a stab at annoying him — “What’re you gonna do about it?” And when his pleading turns to ordering, she feigns sexual excitement — loudly — “You dirty boy!” Let’s give those waiting to confess a reputation-ruining treat, shall we?
So begins an evening where the young woman probes the priest’s reasons for taking up the cloth, his repressed sexuality and sexual experience.
And the priest tells her, this pushy, obnoxious, troublesome girl, because that’s what priests do in really bad theater.
As the night wears on, the priest picks up on what her real reason for being there is, in between other confessions he must hear — the wife (Jayne Marin) of the cheater, the woman (Sarah Schreiber) the cheater is cheating with.
There’s barely a moment in it that doesn’t play false, not a sequence that doesn’t feel contrived and dramatically flat, with only the odd line, here and there — glib sarcasm about rituals from the guy who chose a life of repeating them, endlessly — that has something going for it.
Yes, you can joke about priests and altar boys and no, there’s no prurient thrill to hearing other people’s secrets because A) “It turns out I’m not a 13 year old girl” and B) “It’s not gossip if you hear it directly from the source.”
All of the promise of this premise is in the exposition-heavy opening act. All of that promise evaporates when “Amber” shows up. And any third act efforts to raise the stakes and have the priest go full “Bulworth” — telling one and all how he REALLY feels — just grate.
The hard truths about this misbegotten debacle are that it began to go seriously wrong in the script stage, and that production compromises sealed its fate.
I’m not Catholic, but I know the drama inherent in that “anonymous” booth, and how hard it is to shoot around that, maintaining the proper pitch of performances, staging and lighting and doing many more set-ups. So they didn’t bother building it around that shadowy box.
It’s too coarse to be “faith-based,” too thin to attract “name” talent and too crudely melodramatic to work. So who was this for, exactly?
Because even if “Surviving Confession” makes it to streaming, will anybody stick with it to the end?
It’s a priest-in-crisis melodrama that commits the cinema’s cardinal sin. It’s boring.
MPAA Rating: unrated, violence, adult subject matter, profanity
Cast: Clayton Nemrow, Sarah Schreiber, Jessica Lynn Parsons, Misty Baileys, Kevin Ging
Credits: Directed by Matthew Tibbenham, script by Nathan Shane Miller. A Happy Sisyphus release.
Running time: 1:31