Confession (2022) should work. It has a reasonable director, David Beton (The Hatton Garden Job), and a decent cast: Colm Meaney and Stephen Moyer, among others. But to sit through this laboured and wordy film is almost too much. I confess to this much: I could not finish it.
First, a brief preamble. Colm Meaney plays Fr Peter, a troubled priest going about his business of an evening before being rudely and violently interrupted by Victor (Moyer, of True Blood fame), a gunman with a bloody wound. He wants to know how many exits the church has; before Fr Peter can gesture like an air steward towards the front and rear, we realise that the question is existential, à la Sartre, a huis clos of a thing.
We learn that Victor’s wife was murdered years earlier and now, before Victor’s own imminent death, he needs his 18-year-old daughter to be set free with the truth of his past in closed surroundings. Confession is not then a siege film, but a more theatrical affair in the form of a lengthy dialogue between two men who have rather more in common than they might have thought.
After some considerable time has elapsed in this real-time dialogue, a third character (Clare-Hope Ashitey) enters, also armed and also wounded. In the crossfire of the now triangulated dynamic, allegations are made and allegiances formed. Who is making the confession, Beton asks us again and again: the priest or the penitent, the victim or the violator?
Covid has given us plenty of films with a small cast and even smaller sets. We should, by now, be used to seeing characters in fairly mundane settings talking at great distance to only one other actor or via some spurious device in order to maintain “safety” protocol. For a film that works on a theatrical construction, this would hardly matter. But Confession, for all its pretentions, is not one of those, which rather makes you wonder – and long – for rather more variation on the nave of a church and the pared-down universe of its characters.
Tension, in so far as it exists here, is reliant on the dialogue alone: a dialogue which is unable to give us a sense of the past in the way that the medium of flashback can. Instead, Beton is content to just tell us things; Fr Peter’s own secrets, or the tangled relationship between Victor and the hidden third musketeer, Willow, hiding in the nave of the church. All this leads to the viewer feeling distinctly short-changed as the narrative continues to pip the spectator to the post, conclusions-wise.
The dialogue, writ so large as to be almost parodic, becomes frustrating and excessive, particularly in Fr Peter’s case. “Do what you say you’ve never done,” he blusters. “Face up to your transgressions!” The conflicted Greeneian “whisky priest”, a trope that works so well elsewhere in Catholic film and literature, has all the effect of a Ladybird story book for early initiates of “Sin”. Rashomon, this is not.
The sacrament of Penance has always made for a rich cinematic seam; ironic, perhaps, given that it is the least visually impressive. The trick, as Alfred Hitchcock well knew in his tour-de-force I Confess of 1953, is to leverage the infinite imaginative potential and complicity of the confessional seal without doing too much.
A priest, duty-bound to give a hearing to anyone who comes to him, is as vulnerable to the truth as to the base facts of violence. Beton, sadly, fails to capitalise on the confessional seal as a form of moral compromise but also complicity, one that could help with some much-needed illumination of Fr Peter himself.
For most Catholics, the sacrament of Confession bears none of the drama of the Fr Peter/Victor dyad that the film tries, and fails, to make us believe in. It is rather more truthfully cinematised by the Coen brothers’ character Eddie Mannix in Hail, Caesar! (2016), a man who confesses so often that the priest ends up telling him that he’s “really not that bad”.
I welcome a film that might cinematise these more compelling aspects of Confession: routine but essential, ongoing, part of life’s moral struggle rather than its climax. I wonder if David Beton might turn his hand to the more mundane elements of Penance next.
You need very little cast and stage-set for that, after all.
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