Say what you will about the Catholicism of John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt (2008), the story that captured some of the lightning of the Church’s sex-abuse crisis, but was a very fine film. The same may be said about Spotlight (2015), which even won the Oscar for Best Picture. One may grit one’s teeth to watch these films, but they are first-rate filmmaking.
We’re a long way, heaven knows, from the days of Leo McCarey’s Going My Way (1944), another Oscar winner, and its sequel, The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945). Father O’Malley, we hardly knew ye.
Cinematic life inside a rectory has pretty much lost its sweetness, and we may never get it back. Certainly, there’s no sign of it in writer-director Paul Shoulberg’s The Good Catholic, a spare and plodding film about a young priest who has doubts, in this case about his vocation.
The film opens with the voice of Fr. Daniel (Zachary Spicer) reciting the Hail Mary. He’s ensconced in a confessional, awaiting penitents he knows will almost certainly not come, which is maybe because it’s nighttime.
But a young woman does come. As we will learn, Jane is coquettish and crude and not much of a Catholic, and she proceeds to disparage the rite of Penance and the young priest, to which Fr. Dan protests: “I’m just here to help you with your relationship with God.”
“Relationship” is for Jane either a “dog whistle” or a “trigger word” (I can’t keep the terms straight and don’t wish to), because it compels her to blurt out:
“The thing is, I’m dying.”
The banality of the speech that follows can hardly be described, so I won’t try. It’s supposed to set the scene but doesn’t. Structured like a play (although I can’t recall 90-minutes in a theater during which the only relief from such dullness was an avalanche of silly clichés), the movie’s first half hour is set entirely in church: in the sanctuary, the rectory, or on the rectory’s front porch.
Danny Glover is Fr. Victor, who sort of looks like a priest. And John C. McGinley is a more-than-slightly unhinged Franciscan padre named Ollie, who urges Fr. Dan to “find something of your own – stupid and selfish” to indulge in. This is to make him more “human,” whatever that means.
Anyway, there’s Hoosier basketball on the rectory TV, and school kids in classrooms. There are funerals and Bingo – lots of priest stuff, not all of it stupid or selfish.
A saucy Wrenn Schmidt is Jane, who obsesses about her impending death. Or is she simply depressed that death is out there somewhere, sometime? She says it’s not that she “doesn’t give a #$@%.” She certainly likes to chat in the confessional, and she and Fr. Daniel (“May I call you ‘Daniel’?”) laugh a lot while she confesses. They never treat confession as a sacrament. In fact, on either side of the screen, they play the kids’ game Battleship.
“I’m totally dominating this confession!” she says.
After which she wonders why he doesn’t try confessing to her. She thinks it will make him more human, whatever that means.
So they switch places. For his penance, she rattles off the names of some prayers she has heard of and includes the demand that he come to her show. She’s a singer, you see, and very well-known in Indiana.
It seems clear that Mr. Shoulberg, whether or not he’s conscious of it, believes his arrogant, impious Jane can turn any Tarzan into an ape: Mr. Tarzan, Fr. Tarzan – doesn’t matter.
One thing worth noting about The Good Catholic is its pacing. It’s a lot like waiting around for your number to pop up on a screen at the DMV, only slower. If you decide to watch the movie, I’d suggest bringing along a book.
The dialog among the “religious” is very transactional, more the language of psychology than of religion.
The turning point comes when Fr. Victor announces to Fr. Daniel: no more Late Nite with Father Dan. The confessional is closed.
Thus we finally get off church property so Dan can go hear Jane perform, which she mostly does in several notes of whispering. And he walks her home. See where they are headed?
On Jane’s porch now, he speaks religiously, and she remarks that with that kind of talk he’s “never gonna get laid.” Joke, she says. “You’re going to hell!” he says. But he’s joking too.
Later, now confused about his “feelings” for Jane, Daniel presents her with a Bible, but she is OUTRAGED! What can’t he just let her be. . .herself?!
Later, in Jane’s studio apartment (her bed resembles a coffin), he says:
“You are afraid to let somebody know who you are.”
I’m not making that up. Mr. Shoulberg actually wrote that line and left it in the script.
Will sparks fly between them? Is this The Thorn Birds or is it The Cardinal? Well, the tinkling piano music seems to say love is in the air, and it’s not platonic.
Later at the rectory, Daniel has invited Jane to dinner with the other reverend fathers. Fr. Victor asks her to name her passion, which is music. And what about you Fr. Dan? The sallow and shallow young priest can’t say.
There’s a leitmotif in the movie about John the Evangelist, which – if I correctly grasp the movie’s end – is all about love. God is love, you know, but then . . . so is Jane.
Tell you what: if the Church – as a faith lived partially inside of rectories – were really this joyless, there’d be a lot fewer Catholics in the world.
The Good Catholic is so bad it’s hard to watch. But that’s okay, right? Because you brought along a book to read.
The Good Catholic is rated PG-13. Some of the characters use bad language. Well, they all do, but here I mean swear words. This movie lasts 96 minutes. The film is available for streaming and on DVD, but you have to pay for it.