Having been raised Catholic, I can remember at a very young age making the sacrament we called ‘First Confession.’ Later, it was referred to as the sacrament of ‘Reconciliation.’ After going into the confessional, we would be given our penance, in which we were usually asked not to repeat the same mistakes. To atone for our wrong-doing, we would recite prayers, including one known as the ‘Act of Contrition.’
Over the years, my views of Catholicism have changed, but my feeling that confession is good for the soul has not changed. I think that’s why I like the following films so much, and right now, it does my soul good to mention them:
I CONFESS (1953). Alfred Hitchcock was a devout Catholic, so it was inevitable he would make a film where a man of the cloth was the main character. While the director could easily have gone for shock value in some of the story’s most revealing scenes, he keeps it thoughtful and, well, spiritual. Montgomery Clift is cast as an inner-city priest caught up in a murder investigation. As he withholds key information that was confessed to him by a guilty party, we see the toll it takes on him and his faith.
CONFESSIONS OF TOM HARRIS (1969). This film is based on the life of Hollywood stuntman Tom Harris, an emotionally troubled guy that raped a girl then married her. Don Murray stars as Harris and gives a very intense performance; Linda Evans plays the victim, and is appropriately vulnerable. The story goes in an unexpected direction when we meet her father– a tough but compassionate Christian minister (David Brian) who finds decency in his volatile son-in-law. It’s a very powerful motion picture which has a lot to say about forgiveness.
ABSOLUTION (1978). Richard Burton is a head priest and overseer of teenage boys at a private Catholic school. The boys are evil, and Burton is desperate to save them from themselves. Soon he gets involved in a diabolical plot that leads to murder– lured into it, because of the things he is told in the confessional. The plot is a bit far-fetched in spots, but it works, thanks to Burton’s fine acting and the movie’s many atmospheric touches. You never know if Burton’s character is being manipulated because he’s an unfortunate victim, or if it his own sinful nature that is being controlled by demons.
MASS APPEAL (1984). In this one, Jack Lemmon is cast as an older priest at a parish that is undergoing great changes. The story seems like an 80s update of GOING MY WAY, where Lemmon is paired with a new priest. The drama hinges on the spiritual dilemmas faced by the younger clergyman, who is relieved of his weekly duties when he confides his sins to the older priest. From this point on, he must go his own way.