Some people collect stamps, others butterflies, still others grudges. For me, I have made it a kind of hobby to collect impressions of the portrayal of priests in popular culture.
Growing up in a family surrounded by priests, some I was related to, instilled a distinct affinity in me for this most profound vocation. And having a bent toward consumption of popular culture, as manifested in watching movies that were made even well before my time via the magic of late night cable television, I have been able to indulge this diversion regularly.
Just as your local ornithologist might revel at the sighting of a Golden Winged Warbler or Gull-Billed Tern, I too can usually detect the “species” of priest being portrayed in a film in short order. Lately, and by lately I mean for the past several decades, the identification process has been as dependable as it has been monotonous…
Invariably, priests are portrayed as repressed, angry and unfulfilled creatures either rebelling against the over-bearing strictures placed on them by the Church, or so weak and uncourageous as to be used merely for comic relief.
I detected a new species in this genus in the recently released feature film “Calvary.” This is not an attempt to reenact a review of the film, which was already ably rendered in The Tidings. But my reading of the review of this film and its exploration of the intense if flawed priest/protagonist coincided with the television schedule of Turner Classic Movies and its star of the day Marlon Brando’s seminal performance in “On the Waterfront.”
It is impossible not to think of Brando when one hears the title “On the Waterfront,” as his Academy Award-winning performance set the bar for American film acting on a level heretofore uncharted. But for me, the second great performance in this film is delivered by Karl Malden’s portrayal of the good priest Father Barry.
Directed by Elia Kazan, this film is filled with enough cinematic composition masterpieces and iconic acting riffs from the likes of Marlon Brando, Rod Steiger and Eva Marie Saint to keep film studies professors employed for decades. In 1995, in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of film, the Vatican published a list of 45 “Great” films.
“On the Waterfront” made the list and was placed in the “values” category. There are a lot of reasons to consider this film great but I think no better reason than the multi-layered man of faith Karl Malden creates for the character of Father Barry.
Father Barry is a tough guy. He smokes cigarettes, has a beer every now and then and is absolutely dedicated to the rough around the edges and rough everywhere else of the longshoremen on the docks of New York. This is his parish, this is his flock and they are not the easiest going gang of adherents a priest is likely to encounter.
He is dismissed by most of them, even the good guys, as just another holy roller trying to convince them of a metaphysical theory of existence their soul-crushing day-to-day lives allows them little energy and less inclination to ponder.
Almost shamed to get outside the safety of his church and into the hard reality of the lives of his parishioners by the decency of Eva Marie Saint’s character, Father Barry goes all in to fight the evil of mobster union bosses.
He can’t wait for his parishioners to come to him but instead sets out to find his lost sheep where they are and takes his church to the docks, into the bars and in the midst of a violently corrupt world where money and power are the cudgels that keep everyone in line and their mouths shut… if they know what’s good for them.
When a courageous longshoreman is killed trying to do the right thing, Father Barry stands over the body like a modern day Pieta and offers a beautiful soliloquy about the love of the “almighty buck” blinding people to the commandment of love of one’s fellow man — a part of this screenplay that could have been written by Pope Francis.
And like many a man who is courageous enough to be a fool for Christ, Father Barry receives an avalanche of rotten produce thrown at him and a beer can to the head for his trouble.
When Brando’s broken-down fighter Terry Malloy tells the truth about his culpability in the death of the brother of the girl he loves, only after Father Barry goes several rounds with his conscience, what follows is one of the greatest moments in film.
We hear very little of what the main characters say as the camera loiters close on Father Barry watching them. But the body language screams loud and clear that Eva Marie Saint is not taking the news too well.
Watching Karl Malden as Father Barry, the man who instigated this moment of truth, fighting back tears and turning away and fumbling for a cigarette is powerful stuff.
Marlon Brando may be the star of this film, but the catalyst of his character’s salvation and the decline and fall of the corrupt union boss all comes from Father Barry. Not through his exhortations about some new socio-economic model that is superior to the one Brando and his fellow longshoremen have to deal with, but with the simple Christian message that all men deserve dignity, even priests.