Asia-Pacific, Headlines

PHILIPPINES-FILM: Catholic Church Baulks at Movie on Gay Priest

Johanna Son

MANILA, Feb 1 1996 (IPS) - The local distributor of the British film ‘Priest’, which dwells on the life of a homosexual Catholic cleric, sighed in relief when the Philippine government gave its blessing to its showing in this mainly Roman Catholic country.

After all the effort to screen the critically acclaimed movie, whose prints had been with Jemah Films since July 1995, had already taken six months.

But the film’s distributor soon realised that it had rejoiced prematurely: Just days before the Jan. 17 opening date of ‘Priest’, booking agents and theatre owners began backing out of a previous commitment to screen the movie.

Jaime Cardinal Sin, the influential Archbishop of Manila, had persuaded the mayors of at least two cities and some booking agents to prevent the movie from being shown, though it had already been approved for viewers 18 years old and above.

Church officials said the movie — adjudged best film at the Edinburgh Film Festival and winner of the People’s Choice award at the Toronto International Film Festival — would leave a bad impression on the faithful. More than 85 per cent of Filipinos are Roman Catholic.

The award-winning film, directed by Antonia Bird, also kicked up a storm in the United States last year when the distributor tried to have it shown on Good Friday, the day Jesus Christ was crucified, according to Christian belief.

Scenes showing “Father Greg Pilkington” and his lover “Graham” in bed have shocked the local Catholic hierarchy, though Manila bishop Teodoro Bacani concedes that the film took a compassionate look at the problems of the Church and its all-too- human clergy.

Bacani was among Church leaders who attended a special screening held by Jemah Films, which knew the film would have to survive scrutiny by both Church officials and censors.

Over the past weeks, critics have described the film, which is drawing long lines of young people at some cinemas where it is shown, as “thought-provoking”, “insightful”, and “honest and unblinking”. Others have written to newspapers saying “insult a priest and you are doing it to the one he is representing”.

The furore over ‘Priest’, the latest among several foreign films that had to grapple with the censors’ axe in the Philippines, has upset the local film industry.

“What we are trying to convey here is the curtailment of freedom of expression and our access to information. The limiting of these freedoms is what we’re attacking, whether it’s foreign or local movies,” one director, Armida Siguon-Reyna, said.

In a statement, the Directors’ Guild of the Philippines accused the mayors who gave in to Sin’s pressure of “employing fascist methods to limit or totally prevent a film’s exhibition”. Director Joel Lamangan says the mayors wanted to be endorsed by the cardinal in the next elections.

And even if the informal ban was done with the holiest of aims, critic Nestor Torre said: “The effect is still censorship and therefore an infringement on adult moviegoers’ right to have access to movies of their choice and to react to them and evaluate them freely, as all adults should.”

Director Emmanuel Borlaza says it is preposterous to think Filipinos will believe all priests are gay after seeing the movie. Others renewed their call for the abolition of the movie review board, which effectively functions as censors.

The board has been criticised for protesting or trying to cut intimate scenes from movies like ‘The Piano’, ‘Schindler’s List’, ‘Belle Epoque’ and ‘Bridges of Madison County’.

The same board twice gave ‘Priest’ an X rating, which means it was not fit for public screening. That prompted Jemah Films to shorten controversial scenes and appeal the finding to the presidential review committee.

Pilkington, played by Linus Roache, is a young priest set on doing his best when he takes up his duties in an Irish parish. His idealism is soon shattered when he is confronted with realities that include an affair that a fellow priest, Fr. Matthew Thomas, has with his housekeeper.

Other crises strike at the heart of his priesthood. Pilkington is caught between the confidentiality of the confessional and breaking it to stop a parishioner’s incestuous abuse of his teen daughter.

He enters a homosexual relationship and is rejected by most of his parishioners and superiors. “You are a boil on the body of Christ. . . a bleeding boil ready to erupt into pus, blood and stench,” a fellow priest scoffed.

Pilkington is no less harsh on himself at first, saying “When evil comes calling, faith runs away in terror.” He adds: “I can’t preach about beauty and creation because inside me there’s just sin, sickness and evil.” Yet he says priesthood is his calling, and is keen to continue preaching.

The movie also goes into the touchy subject of the Church’s rules on celibacy (“Jesus didn’t say that, it’s a man-made rule,” says Fr. Matthew), a subject that continues to spark debate within the Church to this day.

Fr. Matthew, Pilkington’s ally and whose own illicit affair is never exposed to the parish, says at one homily that God loves all of mankind — “men, women, blacks, whites, old, young, gay and straight”.

When “Lisa”, the incest victim Pilkington had wanted to help, is the only one who lines up to take communion from him, the film seems to be making the point that there is much more to being a priest than remaining celibate and that it may be time to take a hard look at some of the Church’s rules today.

“Homosexuality is only a surface issue in the film, but it is really about the hypocrisy of people,” Borlaza observes.

Some viewers argue that misbehaving priests are by no means a novelty in the Philippines, where priests during the Spanish colonial period were known to have sired children. Still, the country’s priests are held up as community and religious leaders and as one analyst said, rarely as human beings.

And seeing homosexuality among the clergy on screen is certainly unusual for Filipino audiences, though occasional movies and plays — the last being a local production of Broadway’s ‘Angels in America’ — have dwelt on such issues.

Meantime, all the controversy may be a blessing in disguise for distributors. The film is renting out briskly at video rental shops, and though ‘Priest’ can be seen only in three instead of the original 10 theatres, the queues continue to be long.

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