Writer: Nathan Shane Miller
Director: Matthew Tibbenham
The ideas, structure and personnel of the Catholic church is something culture and society continues to wrestle with, whether that is the actions of individuals in films like Primal Fear and Spotlight or the pillars of faith itself in The End of the Affair. There have been comedy priests and tragic priests, murderous priests and horror priests on screen, but the confessional has remained a largely unexplored area of Catholicism, making Matthew Tibbenham’s 2019 film, now given a digital release, an unusual experiment in confined storytelling.
Father Morris is waiting, waiting and waiting for people to share their secrets with him, either anonymously through the dimly lit grille or face-to-face in the slightly larger room the priest inhabits. One evening, a persistent young woman bursts into the sanctity of the confessional determined to disrupt, causing Father Morris to question his own role as he tries to help her.
Surviving Confession is an unexpected film in many ways as Nathan Shane Miller’s screenplay takes an anthology approach to constructing the overarching narrative as individual confessions feed into the overall struggles that the, once placid, Father Morris increasingly contends with as this single night wears on. While brief, the “sinners” and their backstories are convincingly created, drawing the audience into the intensity of these duologues.
Best among them is Father Whelan’s (Jerry Bornstein) confession in which he moderately highlights both the need for priests to confess to each other and the consequences of their separation from the everyday lives of their parishioners. It makes them at once a sympathetic ear and someone who can never truly understand the outside pressures, a dilemma that Father Morris must reckon with during the film.
Tibbenham’s movie also presents a technical challenge despite Father Morris’s room being far larger than the average confessional box. To prevent the action becoming too theatrical or static while providing variety and drama across the 90-minutes, Tibbenham incorporates physical movement and various camera angles that use the small space to great effect. There is a wry humour that runs through the early scenes, reflected in the cosy set-up with its china teapot and books, while Tibbenham develops the tension by mixing Father Morris’s monologued asides with the, sometimes touching, admissions of strangers.
With the presentation of fictional priests needing to look beyond the dog collar, Clayton Nemrow offers one of the most roundedly human portraits of a clergyman on film. He reads, has a specific tea ritual, plays video games on his phone between visits and reacts with eye rolls to the lies and deceptions he hears on a daily basis. Father Morris’s fallibility is credibly unveiled by Nemrow without condemning the faith the young priest has devoted his adult life to.
The central female character played by Jessica Lynne Parson is deliberately frustrating in some ways, and the too jarring effect of her overly dominant presence makes her harder to emphasise with as the twisty conclusion bursts out of the confessional for a soapy showdown. And while more of Father Morris’ knowing monologue to camera would add some necessary levity later in the film, Surviving Confession still adds value to the debate about the Catholic faith in modern society, as well as developing film techniques in confined spaces.
Available to stream now