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Screenings and Meanings

By Gerald Schmitz

 

Sex, doubt and religion: stories from behind the pulpit

 

06/17/2015
Gerald SchmitzFall
(Canada 2014)
I Am Michael
(U.S. 2015)

A while back while enjoying Peter Bogdanovich’s uproarious 1972 comedy What’s Up, Doc? on the Turner Classic Movies channel — especially its sensational car chase scene — I noted the performance of veteran American character actor Michael Murphy, now 77. It struck me because thanks to a Winnipeg-Ottawa Air Canada flight I had just seen him in a much more sombre light, playing a troubled Catholic priest in Terrance Odette’s Fall (http://fallfeaturefilm.com/), a role which earned him a Canadian Screen Awards best-actor nomination.

Murphy is the brooding heart and soul of Fall, which deserves better distribution than it’s likely to get. His Father Sam ministers to the aging dwindling flock of a Niagara Falls parish. The season is winter in the weeks of Advent leading up to Christmas. Father Sam is devoted to a quiet life of service, always willing to lend a sympathetic pastoral ear. Yet his restless nights suggest a man not really at peace. He faces a moral dilemma when counselling an uncertain young couple (Michael Luckett and Katie Boland) preparing for marriage. After the funeral service for an elderly Iranian woman her gay son Reza (Cas Anvar) challenges him on belief in heaven and hell. Does the faith demand strict obedience or is he a “cafeteria Catholic”?

One can imagine Father Sam replying like Pope Francis: “Who am I to judge?” The sense of being a sinner in need of God’s grace forcefully hits home when he receives an unexpected handwritten letter from a Sault Ste. Marie address. It expresses a personal wound that has afflicted the writer since sharing a night with the priest 30 years earlier when he was a vulnerable teenage boy. There is no direct allegation of sexual impropriety but whatever happened has resulted in the distress felt by an abandoned soul.

Father Sam recoils at the thought he did something wrong but in examining his conscience he feels compelled to make a lonely road trip northwest in search of healing closure. On the way he stops to visit his sister (Wendy Crewson) and family without divulging the reason. Arriving at his destination he drives by the address of the letter writer then discovers he is gravely ill in hospital, unable to communicate. When Father Sam meets the man’s sister Catherine (Suzanne Clément), she becomes distraught, accusing him of being a pedophile. There will be no closure or absolution.

Murphy gives an exceptional nuanced performance as a sincere man of God wrestling with painful personal doubts, and this superbly lensed small film — with its austere landscapes of snow and falling water — refuses to give any pat answers in judgment.

***

James Franco, the prolific polymath author-actor-filmmaker, appears in no fewer than 14 movies this year. Of his three Sundance/Slamdance premieres in January, the one that impresses most is I Am Michael, a debut feature by director/co-writer Justin Kelly telling the true story of controversial “ex-gay” activist turned pastor Michael Glatze. The film’s genesis and depiction of events draws on a former associate’s June 2011 New York Times magazine essay My Ex-Gay Friend, which was suggested to Kelly by executive producer Gus Van Sant.

Franco, who was also at Tribeca in The Adderall Diaries, gives a commanding performance as Michael. The opening sequence shows him as a strict Christian preacher counselling a troubled gay teen to “choose heterosexuality” in order to be with God. Then we flash back to Michael’s very gay San Francisco scene circa 1998 when he was managing editor of a gay lifestyles magazine XY and living, apparently happily, with boyfriend Bennett (Zachary Quinto). Glatze was an outfront and galvanizing figure, arguing that gay and straight gender identities were social constructs. He also fiercely criticized fundamentalist Christians, demanding, “What kind of God would punish you for finding love?”

When Bennett’s job took him to Halifax in 2002, Michael followed and began working on a new magazine. He also picked up a handsome young guy, Tyler (Charlie Carver), in a bar and the couple became a threesome. They took a road trip across America shooting a documentary on queer youth (“Jim in Bold”) during which Michael encountered some openly gay Christians. When he started having heart palpitations and panic attacks, he worried about having inherited a heart condition from his father who died when Michael was 13. Whether this health scare was psychosomatic or not, Michael thanked God for his recovery and started questioning his path in life. (His magazine had put out a “God issue” along the lines: “The only truth is love. The only sin is denying it.”) Then as he moved toward religious belief — reading the Bible, listening to evangelical broadcasts, meeting a Mormon preacher — he questioned his sexuality too, leading to a painful breakup with Bennett. By 2006 he was rejecting his former “shallow sinful lifestyle” and pursuing spiritual meditation (exploring Mormonism, going on a Buddhist retreat) to rid himself of “abnormal desires.” In the mental turmoil of searching for his “true self” Michael declared that he no longer identified as gay, calling himself “a heterosexual person with a homosexual problem.”

Although Michael remained in touch with Tyler, his religious conversion deepened. In 2008 he enrolled in a conservative Bible school in Wyoming where he met an attractive young woman, Rebekah Fuller (Emma Roberts). As they became close she was forgiving when finding out about his past life. Indeed they would eventually marry. By this time Michael had evolved into a doctrinaire Christian and was pastor of his own “Shepherd of the Plains” church. That improbable journey — from stridently embracing homosexuality to harshly condemning it — unsurprisingly provoked a furious backlash in the gay community and among foes of sexual “conversion” who didn’t accept that Michael’s was believable.

In recording these twists and turns the movie makes excellent use of Michael’s actual blog posts and correspondence over the years marking the stages in his religious and psycho-sexual evolution.

The story isn’t over, of course. In a sense the “real” Michael, as he emerges in Franco’s complex nuanced portrayal, remains an enigma. The final image of Michael’s face as it darkens from a smile into a look of doubt and concern suggests ongoing uncertainty if not the confusion of a deeply conflicted personality. It’s worth noting that both Michael and wife Rebekah attended the Sundance premiere and seem to have accepted this screen version as fair.

In a post-screening question and answer session with director Kelly, he observed that Michael has grown less dogmatic and judgmental since their first meeting. He has reached out to reconnect with Bennett and is writing a letter of apology to those he has offended in the gay community. Kelly also stated that: “He loves the new pope . . . he keeps talking about the pope.” So clearly Pope Francis’ emphasis on mercy and forgiveness over stern judgments has had a positive effect.

In the fictional Fall, a long-serving Catholic priest has a crisis of conscience over something with possibly innocent sexual overtones that occurred decades earlier. In the true story I Am Michael, an “ex-gay” Christian pastor completely rejects his former sexuality as deviant and wrong before learning to become more tolerant. In both cases, the grace of a loving forgiving God is the best answer I can think of to the prayers of doubting selves and wounded souls.