Tuesday, February 12, 2008

A Hair-Raising (and Not Just on Martin Sheen's Head) Movie

It's 1999. The Fourth Vatican Council has just convened; the Church has repudiated, among other things, the Sacrament of Confession, the doctrine of transubstantiation, and the good of the soul over material goods; negotiations are under way to meld Catholicism and Buddhism. This whole house of cards stands threatened by a handful of monks in an island monastery off the coast of Ireland who calmly continue to offer the Tridentine Mass, to which people from around the world flock. And young Father Kinsella (Martin Sheen) has come all the way from Rome to put the kibosh on the whole thing.

Such is the stuff of The Conflict, originally released on television as Catholics, and based on the novel of the same name by Brian Moore, a fallen-away Catholic (who, ironically, died at the beginning of the year in which the story takes place). Martin Sheen, with his big hair, intense stare, Roman-collar-less black shirt and military jacket, looks every inch the messenger of Satan that he in fact is, both objectively and to the monks of Mork Island who have preserved the Sacraments and the Mass in order not to tamper with the people's faith.

Father Kinsella, plenipotentiary of the superior general of the monks' order, cannot convince the boatman sent to ferry him to the monastery that he is a priest, and so must call in a helicopter to drop him off on the island -- the first landing of an aircraft on that island in history. He is greeted by Father Abbot (Trevor Howard), and then by Father Manus (Cyril Cusack) -- first seen offering the outlawed Tridentine Mass on windswept rocks on the mainland, with contraband vessels and vestments -- who, unable to brook dishonesty even in the name of courtesy, lays into the young know-it-all with a prophetic (in 1973) speech about everything that is wrong with a Mass in which the priest turns away from God, talks to the people, and provides an entertainment. The rest of the monks are downright hostile -- none of which matters much to Father Kinsella, who is so much more "with it" than they. Still, he misjudges Father Abbot -- though Father Abbot himself has an Achilles heel that is not without consequences.

The DVD version of this movie is somewhat spoiled by the lousy editing (some scenes that would have been helpful to understanding the plot are cut out of the beginning) and cheesy credits, and the story is limited by its author's lack of faith, particularly in the inerrancy of the Church and the primacy and infallibility of Peter (it is simply unthinkable that Rome itself would turn Protestant). Then there are the silly and completely unnecessary faux pas (e.g., no one is "ordained a monk"; and the name of the order of monks sounds most uncomfortably close to "Albigensian"). Plus, the company that wrote the copy for the disk jacket demonstrates an ignorance of and contempt for a Catholic audience by propping us up to sympathize with liberation-theology-loving Father Kinsella and his diabolical mission. Yet it provokes thought (albeit imperfectly owing to the author's lack of faith) on the reach and limits of obedience, particularly the obedience owed by religious to their superiors; and on the primacy of conscience, that much-misused doctrine upon which so much abuse has rested since Vatican II.

Most of all, in the afterlight of thirty-five years, the movie overall turns out to be astonishingly prescient. There is virtually nothing in Father Manus' predictions about the results of the new Mass that has not in fact come to pass. And Father Kinsella is a walking prophecy all on his own: the very type of the decades of priests who have given up priestly garb; sacrificed the salvation of souls on the altar of materialism; substituted political activism for the Sacraments; and dabbled in transcendental meditation. In short, he is the epitome of many worldly priests with no faith -- polite and civilized, even affable, hanging by a thread over the abyss of Hell, burdened by the weight of the many souls they are dragging down with them. Nice people can and do go to Hell.

Overall, for all its faults, I have to give this movie a thumbs-up. Hat tip to the Caveman, who first recommended it, thereby getting the Redoubtable Marcus Magnus to order it, thereby giving me a chance to see it. It's worth it.


  1. In spite of it's flaws, the best $1 DVD I've ever bought! worth every penny.

    I am beginning to think that the moral the author meant to convey is the conflict between pious fraud and outright bunko scheme, both of which the author dismisses.

  2. The pious fraud, though, was not entirely dishonorable; at least the pious fraud respected the sensibilities of others, and didn't involve trying to force the fraud's thinking on everybody else.

    I had to ask myself, while I watched the movie unfold, whether it was really pious fraudulence going on or just a crisis of faith not unlike those undergone by great saints, such as Therese of Lisieux. I don't think this author would (or could) distinguish between them, just as he fails to distinguish between a pious fraud and an outright bunko scheme.

  3. Oh yes!!

    I loved this movie! I bought the Dollar store out and gave them away to all my Catholic friends.