Years ago, I had a conversation with a deeply religious man whose marriage was falling apart. He and his wife had both done terrible things to each other, and they fought bitterly in front of the kids on a regular basis. I asked him if he had thought about divorce. He shook his head no, and told me that divorce was out of the question. He regarded it as an unforgivable sin. However, he also confessed that sometimes he wished that God would kill him, so he would no longer have to endure the horrors of his domestic life.
Committed religious belief certainly has its merits, but there are times when rigid adherence to doctrine can limit a person's access to obvious common-sense solutions. That's the notion playfully (yet melodramatically) explored by Anthony Page's Absolution, penned by Sleuth writer Anthony Shaffer. The film takes one of the tricky rules of Catholicism – the fact that a priest may not reveal anything he hears in confession to the authorities – and builds an increasingly tense psychological thriller out of it.
The tale is set in a Catholic boarding school, where Father Goddard (Richard Burton, Becket) rules with an iron fist. Goddard is the sort of no-nonsense authority figure you don't want to cross: quick to confiscate things, intolerant of unbridled joy and willing to humiliate anyone who dares to act foolish in his presence. Still, he's not completely heartless: he's developed something of an admiration for a promising young student named Benjie Stanfield (Dominic Guard, Gandhi), and begins to think of himself as a father figure to the boy.
What Goddard doesn't realize is that Benjie isn't really thriving in the boarding school environment. The boy feels increasingly resentful towards Father Goddard, and his resentfulness begins to flourish when a local drifter named Blakey (Billy Connolly, The Boondock Saints) gives Benjie a glimpse of what personal liberation looks like. Blakey is the very definition of a free spirit: he rides a motorcycle, has wild, shaggy hair, plays the banjo, drinks, dabbles in drugs and occasionally steals a little food from the school. When Father Goddard finds out that Benjie has been spending time with Blakey, he orders Benjie to break off the relationship: “Freedom's a banner that the unscrupulous frequently march under.”
To get revenge, Benjie persuades Father Goddard to listen to his confession. The first time, he makes up a story about sleeping with a woman. Naturally, this infuriates Goddard, but the priest is unable to expel Benjie from the school or take any action: what's revealed in confession stays in confession. The next time, Benjie makes up a story about murdering Blakey, and even buries a scarecrow to help fuel the lie. Then a real dead body turns up, and suddenly Father Goddard is forced to confront the reality that there's a murderer in his school and he can't do anything about it.
I'm not a Catholic, and I'm not sure what real priests would have to say about the credibility of this scenario. However, if you can accept the basic premise, the film quickly becomes a gripping tale about the perils of religious fundamentalism: Goddard is being punished by his adherence to it, and Benjie seems to have snapped as a result of it. There's very little actual violence in the movie, but Shaffer and Page still manage to generate considerable tension simply by contrasting the faces of the two leads: Burton's stern-but-weary visage is filled with increasing horror, while Guard begins to look increasingly like some sort of smirking demon. Paranoid hallucinations pop up with increasing regularity, while Stanley Myers' score attempts to fry our nerves with atonal woodwinds and pounding piano chords.
The film's climax is so melodramatic that it's hard to avoid snickering a little, but it's something of a marvel that the film manages to sell this material as well as it does. Burton never slips into hamminess, delivering a fully committed performance that echoes his underappreciated work in the (undeniably ridiculous) Exorcist II: The Heretic. Goddard's problem would be easily resolved under most circumstances, but the rules he has set for himself prevent him from doing anything. He turns to heaven for help: “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, keep me constant.” Perhaps he should have consulted Galatians: “For whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.”
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 95 minutes
Release Year: 1978