GOOD-HEARTED, streetwise Catholic priests were once a staple of Hollywood films. Who can forget Pat O'Brien as Father Connolly in Angels With Dirty Faces, walking with his childhood pal, gangster Rocky Sullivan (James Cagney), to the electric chair, reminding him of what is right up until the very end? Or Bing Crosby as Father O'Malley in Going My Way, who wins the trust of his errant youthful charges by taking them to ball games and singing the Ave Maria ? Or Spencer Tracey as Father Flanagan in Boys Town, who saves the souls of unruly orphans with his belief that: “There is no such thing as a bad boy?”
The tough-guy clerics in these '30s and '40s classics befriended the poorest outcasts among the young and helped them resist the temptation of thievery and violence so prevalent in their slum-ridden environments. Of course, it was only the movies, but, underneath the heroics and sentimentality, there was a strong image of the Catholic Church as an unswerving bulwark of faith and morality on these otherwise mean streets.
This fall's hit film, Sleepers, recycles this archetype of the compassionate urban priest in a cynical, postmodern fashion, completely inverting the meaning of his relationship to the surrounding culture. A well-meaning cleric's loyalty to his charges is used to reinforce a kind of moral relativism totally opposite to the unchanging transcendent values so proudly upheld in the earlier movies.
Sleepers is adapted from a best-selling memoir by Lorenzo Carcaterra. The title is slang for kids who do time in juvenile detention facilities. Many of the book's incidents have been called fabrications in the press, and a feeling of falseness carries over into the film.
The time is 1966, and four young teenage boys are growing up wild in an idealized version of New York's impoverished Hell's Kitchen. Shakes (Joe Perrino), Michael (Brad Renfro), John (Geoffrey Wigdon) and Tommy (Jonathan Tucker) are best of friends, pledged to sticking together through good times and bad.
There are two stabilizing forces in their community: the Mafia and the Catholic Church. But in a reversal of Hollywood's earlier treatment of this material, writer-director Barry Levinson (Rain Man ) regards these institutions as morally equal. In fact, Catholicism is judged slightly more harshly than the mob because, according to the movie, its opposition to divorce deprives the neighborhood women of one of their protections against domestic violence.
King Benny (Vittorio Gassman), a stylish Mafia don, gives the teenagers a job making payoffs to local cops. Father Bobby (Robert De Niro), in the tradition of movies like Angels With Dirty Faces, is “a friend who just happens to be a priest.”He warns about the evils of a life of crime while playing basketball with the youngsters and defending them from abusive parents.
The innocence of their harsh but happy childhood is forever destroyed when a street prank unexpectedly turns sour, and a passerby is severely injured. The four are sentenced to the Wilkinson Home for Boys where they are subjected to gratuitous beatings, tortures and rapes at the hands of a quartet of guards led by the sadistic Sean Nokes (Kevin Bacon). The scars upon their psyches are deep and permanent.
Flash forward to 1981. John (Ron Eldard) and Tommy (Billy Crudup) have become hardened criminals. When, by chance, they come upon Nokes in a bar, they can't resist getting even and kill him in front of witnesses.
They're soon arrested, and, despite the overwhelming evidence against them, their former comrades who've gone straight, Michael (Brad Pitt) and Shakes (Jason Patrick), vow to get them off. Michael, now an assistant district attorney, wangles himself the assignment of prosecutor in the case and sets out to botch it.
The movie's presentation of the trial is riddled with implausibilities. The eyewitnesses' testimony is discredited by flimsy arguments and a Wilkinson's guard (Terry Kinney), who's called to testify as to Nokes's good character, is unconvincingly tricked into confessing his cohorts' sadistic exploits.
Michael succeeds in wrecking the prosecution's case, but his buddies can't be assured of walking unless someone provides them with an alibi. Shakes, now a newspaper reporter, tells Father Bobby about the abuse perpetuated on his former charges. Deeply moved, the priest perjures himself on the witness stand and testifies he was at a basketball game with the accused on the night of the murder. The jury, of course, believes the saintly-looking cleric, and John and Tony are acquitted.
The movie applauds Father Bobby's action even though he put his hand on the Bible and lied, allowing two men to get away with a vigilante-style killing. In so doing, the filmmaker elects not to show us Father Bobby wrestling with his conscience because a fair-minded presentation of his options might undermine the audience's sympathy for his decision.
It's also instructive to compare Father Bobby's attitude with that of a cleric in a similar situation in an earlier film. “What earthly good is it for us to teach that honesty is the best policy,” laments Father Connolly in Angels With Dirty Faces, “when all around they see dishonesty is a better policy … that the hoodlum and the gangster is looked up with the same respect as the successful businessman or popular hero?”
Father Connolly realizes he must serve as an example and set himself apart from the law of the jungle that prevails in his neighborhood, teaching the youth under his care to do the same even when it brings them into conflict with the culture in which they've been raised. In Sleepers, Father Bobby decides not to take this difficult path. Instead he violates one of the commandments to accommodate the eye-for-an-eye code of Hell's Kitchen, and although a kind of rough justice is accomplished, his choice devalues his calling. Father Bobby is more like a social worker making the best of a bad situation than a priest with his eyes on eternity. The clerics played by Pat O'Brien, Bing Crosby and Spencer Tracey knew better.
John Prizer is based in Los Angeles.