The life of Bree-an

Hardly do I ever see films, big screen or small, so when I do, I am often quite affected. In my piece over at Catholic Thing today (here), I mentioned one I saw last week, from 1973 (here). It is entitled, Catholics, and is by the late talented novelist, Brian (pronounced, Bree-an) Moore. He wrote screenplay as well as the underlying novella, and from my email I already see that plenty people of a certain age remember it. A nice hand also to the directors and actors — now all but the youngest, dead — for a made-for-TV movie so memorable.

As it is still in my head, I am still wondering why it should haunt me. I can think of three reasons: the simple explanation of the Sacrifice of the Mass by the character Father Manus (played by the late Cyril Cusack), for the benefit of a sophisticated young idiot from Rome; the imagery of the ruined, re-inhabited Abbey (shot on Sherkin Island, in County Cork); and the fact that we are once again passing through a “conflict” in which the Catholic faith is under a focused and hugely destructive attack, from Rome itself. This gives the film a frisson of the prognostick.

On the surface it seems as if its purpose had been to help crush the hopes of Catholic “traditionalists,” back in the day; to show that, deary me, their days were numbered. In the “spirit of Vatican II” it imagines the “spirit of Vatican IV” — the inevitable push forward against the sentimental pull of the past. The past might be pretty; and progress might be ugly, but it will win out.

The Abbot himself in this remote “Muck Abbey” privately reveals that he is an atheist. He is a stoic, who, lacking all conviction, but by stolid, personal, Nietzschean will — plus good cheer, and a joking disposition — views his job as that of a foreman. This is psychologically implausible; which is to say, a dramatic lie. No man, eschewing divine grace, nor alternatively the strange energy of the devil, could have lasted for decades in such a job. Not when he has been intimately surrounded by unambiguously faithful monks, equally inured to the hard life. He would have cracked, or converted.

Yet the Abbot, who in this instance bends to the times, is cast as a noble and heroic figure; his faithful monks, however sympathetically portrayed, are cast as naïve victims of superstition. Through forty-five years, we learn, they never noticed that their Abbot never prays. Nor do they suspect, now. … Please!

(More brilliant casting, by the way. For the Trevor Howard who played this role was, it turns out through his Wiki profile, a man who concocted an heroic war record for himself, when in fact he had dodged military service. But only after his death was this discovered.)

Our attention is centred on the fate of the Latin Mass. That is the foreground issue; the real issue is mentioned only in passing. Rome, in the film, after Vatican IV, has denounced belief in miracles — including the Real Presence in which we find the central miracle of the Incarnation. Visitor and Abbot have contrived to sweep that off the table; and the sweet, but rather dithering monk who takes it up (that Father Manus), invites our knowing condescension. His tougher fellow, who insists upon the miraculous — quoting Augustine to clinch his point — is presented as a charmless zealot. Others, deeply upset by what is happening, come across as mentally unstable.

Psychological implausibilities are more damaging than material implausibilities, in drama; and so one cannot be surprised that Brian Moore was reduced to a trick ending.

The dramatic flavour of the film (I never read the novella, and am not moved to do so now), is in the juxtaposition of the smart, professional, yoga-mastering jetsetter from Rome (well represented by the young Martin Sheen), and the bleak, isolated, fisherman surroundings. He who is used to speak power to truth, has come to the one place in the world where he may be outnumbered; and with the lie that is the premiss of the film. It is by the visuals, and the soundtrack of the old Irish voices, that we are placed under enchantment; the script is merely clever. Moore, himself the professional lapsed Catholic, by depicting a confrontation over the Latin in the Mass, deflects from the issue on which it depends.

For if one does not oneself believe, or more precisely, stake one’s soul on the Real Presence, one cannot understand a real Catholic. It does not matter how powerful the thing may be as “a symbol.” If the Real Presence is not really present, the whole Catholic Church is hogwash, and her purported Founder was a snake-oil salesman. Scientology, or Wicca, would make as good a hobby.

It does not matter how thoroughly one was once immersed in a Catholic “culture”; or how much nostalgia one feels for it. It does not matter how talented a writer is, how well-informed, or even how fair in presenting the “debate” from all sides. It does not matter if the cinema is filled, or even the church, by paying customers.

The real deficiency of the late author, that professional Irishman, Brian Moore, may be seen in the deflection: his trying to write “meaningfully” about a place where he is only a tourist. Or if he claimed more, a fraud and a poseur.

On further thought, nor is the Latin Mass the secondary issue. Rather more immediately it is the credentials of this cocky Inquisitor from Rome, whose papers are those of the men who sent him. For if, after two thousand years, in the founding commission of Our Lord, they claim the right to revise their orders — they have no authority. They become tourists in their own Church, and when they claim more, imposters.