The Virginian-Pilot
                             THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT 
              Copyright (c) 1995, Landmark Communications, Inc.

DATE: Saturday, May 13, 1995                 TAG: 9505120065
                                             LENGTH: Long  :  116 lines


THE MAIN REACTION I hope for is an enormous sense of humanity and compassion,'' director Antonia Bird was saying about her film ``Priest.''

The reaction to her film has had everything to do with humanity but little to do with compassion.

``Priest,'' which opened this week at local theaters, has been denounced by John J. Cardinal O'Connor, the archbishop of New York, as ``cheap and onerous'' and ``viciously anti-Catholic.''

Several theaters in New Jersey, scheduled to show the story of a young priest who falls in love with a man, were closed by bomb threats.

Protesters made so many calls to the Walt Disney Company, owners of the releasing Miramax Films, that a portion of the switchboard had to be closed down. The most fervent protesters called for Catholics to boycott all Disney products, Disney films and the Disney parks.

Disney officials referred questions and protests to Miramax Films, which they say is a separate and independent organization.

The Knights of Columbus, the Catholic fraternal organization, announced that it was selling nearly $3 million worth of stock in Disney Co. and canceling a trip to Disneyland.

At the same time, Miramax seemed to actually fan the flames. How else could you explain the choice of Good Friday for ``Priest's'' wide release in the United States? The decision was deliberately provocative and was subsequently revoked - the studio delayed the film's release.

Linus Roache, the handsome British actor who plays the title character, seemed a little perplexed by all the hoopla. ``I am not Catholic,'' he said during an interview in New York. ``I talked to a number of priests while preparing for the role, but I'm not going to pretend that I know a lot about the church. I think the film is about celibacy, homophobia and hypocrisy - mostly about hypocrisy. The real question is that vow. Father Greg took the vow, but not with the idea that there was ever to be a loophole. Then, the problem of choice comes.''

Roache is a veteran of the Royal Shakespeare Company, but is making his film debut as Father Greg. Already Hollywood is calling.

``I haven't taken an apartment in Hollywood yet,'' Roache laughed, ``but it's all beginning. I'm not a workaholic, though, and I'm not in any rush. I know the money is in America and if I want to make movies, I have to do it here. I just want to make movies that are important - and good.''

Father Greg, in ``Priest,'' is a young idealist who initially contrasts with veteran priest Matthew Thomas. The older priest seems to be concerned more with social issues, while young Father Greg is concerned with personal theology. Father Greg is shocked by the fact that his fellow priest is having an affair with the housekeeper (Cathy Tyson of ``Mona Lisa'').

On a fateful night, though, Father Greg dresses in a leather coat and goes out to a bar where he meets a young man, and subsequently has sex with him. The two eventually fall in love, but Father Greg goes through torments of guilt about it.

A subplot develops in which a teenage girl tells Father Greg that she has regularly been sexually abused by her father. He feels he should do something, but is prevented by the sanctity of confession.

In a moving moment, the priest cries for help - trapped by his own personal guilt and his feelings that he has betrayed his faith.

Roache admits two endings were filmed. ``Even in playing the role, I was troubled as to what he was thinking. At the time I filmed it, I thought he shouldn't leave the church. A year later, I think, maybe, he should have left. In either case, it's something we should talk about.''

Roache says he is not homosexual, but that he didn't hesitate to take the role, and to play the graphic sex scene required.

``I don't think the film is really about homosexuality. It's more about repression. And, yes, the sex scene was a little difficult to play. You take your clothes off and you don't know where to look. Bobby (Robert Caryle, who plays Graham, the lover, in the film) is not gay either. I suppose you might say we had a one-scene affair.

``The film was not ABOUT that scene, but the scene was necessary. It was necessary to show that Father Greg had broken his vow in order to show the guilt he felt about it. I felt playing the part was a great responsibility.''

Director Antonia Bird is a jolly Londoner whose background is in theater. She said ``Priest'' was originally written to be a four-hour British TV mini-series, but it was cut to 90 minutes when investors felt it should be made as a feature film instead.

Bird comes from a theater family and has been working behind the scenes since age 16. She briefly tried to become an actress but quickly gave it up ``because I suffer major stage fright. My dad was an actor, but I prefer being behind the scenes. As a woman director, yes, there are some problems. The older guys wouldn't like a younger guy as their boss, much less a younger woman, but they adjust. I tell them that we all have to learn together, and we get it done.''

She is making her big Hollywood studio debut in a few weeks with the film ``Mad Love.'' It stars Drew Barrymore and Chris O'Donnell in what she describes as a ``road romance-comedy.'' It's produced by the Disney Studio.

``Actually, I like the big money they have,'' she chuckled. ``Being a woman director is not as much a problem in England as it is in America, but, actually, I prefer big-business bureaucracy in America to English bureaucracy.''

In the meantime, she is not surprised at the ``Priest'' controversy.

``I think the film does say something about hypocrisy, but I'd like people to see it as a personal drama, not an institutional one. Ten minutes have been cut for the American release - mostly from the so-called `sex' scene. I think it's quite strange that you're not allowed to show a bare man's butt, but you can show heads being chopped off. The problem here is that it involves two men. It's really silly. I'd rather people make love than kill each other. Obviously, some people think differently.'' ILLUSTRATION: Photo by MIRAMAX

Linus Roache says the film is about celibacy, homophobia and mostly,


Color photo by Miramax

British actor Linus Roache.


Director Antonia Bird

by CNB