Unloading Onscreen: Of Film, Formation, and First Confession

Every confession is a first confession – or at least it could be. It should be.

Guillaume Bodinier, “Paysanne de Frascati au confessionnal” (1826)
Guillaume Bodinier, “Paysanne de Frascati au confessionnal” (1826) (photo: Public Domain)

You do not want to make too much of your constant imperfections and venial sins
but you want to drag them out to the light of day as the first step in getting rid of them.
 —Dorothy Day

Earlier this month, Nick stopped me after Sunday Mass with a viewing tip. “Ever heard of ‘Ray Donovan’?” he asked, undoubtedly knowing in advance that I hadn’t. “It’s a crime series on Showtime – very intense, and not for family viewing at all. But there’s a confession scene in one episode that I want to talk to you about.”

Since I don’t watch any TV, I rely on others to keep me abreast of trends, and Nick’s recommendations are always worth following up. I told him I’d check it out.

The confession Nick referenced appears in the last episode of the third season. Donovan (Liev Schreiber), a high-stakes “fixer,” is shown in the confessional visibly distraught, and Father Romero (Leland Orser) is across the grill, coaxing and pressing him to lay it all out there. And Ray has plenty to unload, for he’s guilty of murdering a priest — a priest that abused him and his brother when they were boys. It’s not the tidiest of confessions by a long shot, but Ray manages to blurt out his transgressions with plenty of remorse.

Evidently, Fr. Romero was already well familiar with Ray’s story, but I watched the scene utterly out of context. I knew nothing of Donovan’s complicated life, the contours of his moral challenges, the history, the horizons – nothing! I imagine that’s what it’s frequently (usually?) like for real priests hearing real confessions from real penitents.

Luckily, blissfully, good confessions don’t need a bunch of context; they don’t need to be tidy. In essence, they’re fairly straightforward encounters – just like the one between Ray and Fr. Romero: The contrite sinner speaks his sins; the priest listens. When combined with a rudimentary intention to repair and amend, grace floods the confessional and the agents of damnation scurry away to lick their wounds.

What a relief, as an adult convert, to find out about this fabulous sacrament! Growing up evangelical, I was burdened by doubt and scruples and guilt, and it was hard to know what to do with my continued relapses into sin. Did I in fact become a Christian at that one summer camp – did I do it correctly? If so, why did I continue to choose against God? How to cope with my ongoing post-conversion failures?

Then, I found the Church – or, rather, the Church enveloped me. She was cavernous and intimidating, but she directed me to that little box – a closet really, a phone booth. Inside, there was an unmasking of the soul, self-accusation and naked truth, the offloading of iniquity – what could be more dramatic than that? I think it’s the most arresting feature of Catholic Christianity – that starting over again and again is built right into the system. It’s the religion for sinners, which is why G.K. Chesterton’s short answer to questions about his own conversion was simply, “To get rid of my sins” – not just once and for all, but repeatedly, continually, as we trundle and trip forward toward glory.

Confession is spectacular and unprecedented – wildly foreign to inquirers, particularly those coming from traditions that prefer to channel sin-shedding down more individualistic, sequestered pathways. In fact, it’s so strange that graphic depictions of what happens in that mysterious box – even messy, painful depictions like Ray Donovan’s – are invaluable illuminative additions to whatever formal instruction we converts receive.

As I think back to my own conversion arc, I can recall several examples of dramatic on-screen confessions that helped me navigate the surreal realm of sacramental reconciliation. They don’t constitute a complete curriculum on Penance by any stretch, but, as supplementary, illustrative material, they’re hard to beat.

1. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966)

It’s not exactly a sacramental confession, but there’s a scene in this classic Clint Eastwood spaghetti Western that constituted my first brush with priestly intercession. The eponymous “ugly” character of the film, a Mexican bandit named Tuco, is visiting his brother Pablo, a Franciscan priest, after a long separation. Their reunion is an especially awkward one: Tuco, hoping for rapprochement, compliments the friar and looks for common familial ground they can tread together; Fr. Pablo, austere, eyes narrowing, rebuffs these overtures and condemns his brother’s criminal ways. In the end, Tuco acknowledges his crimes, but rationalizes them in terms that any moral theologian would credit with considerable insight. The brothers trade blows, knocking over statues of saints, and Tuco departs with a dismissal gesture. Watching after him, Pablo, in contrition, speaks his own confession: “Please forgive me, brother.”

I was barely a born-again Christian myself when I saw this movie as a kid, and the images stuck with me. The sinner, deferential, enters a concealed space. There, he meets one set apart, fesses up, and hopes for reconciliation. The subsequent denial of that hope heightens the binary dimension of this exchange, particularly when the roles are reversed in the end and the advocate becomes the penitent.

2. Hill Street Blues, “Trial by Fury” (1982)

I’m pretty sure Hill Street Blues was the last TV series I watched regularly, and it was a good one. I was in college in suburban Seattle, and the raw intensity (by 1980s standards) of HSB’s settings, plots, and characterizations were revelatory to me. In fact, I had HSB very much in mind when I eventually moved to Chicago to find out about urban living, the Catholic Worker, and the Jesus who hides out among the poor.

In the episode entitled “Trial by Fury,” Captain Frank Furillo, the series’ main character, is grappling with an extremely grisly crime. He games the system in order to obtain a confession and sure conviction, and, although he’s congratulated for his moral equivocation in pursuit of a desired outcome, he is clearly uncomfortable with his choice.

I remember watching with great interest in the closing moments of the episode as Capt. Furillo drives up to a Catholic church – significantly, just as a street sweeper passes by. Frank goes inside, enters a small room, and the screen cover is pulled back by an anonymous hand. Frank pauses and says, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.” It made me curious – and, more than that, hungry. The rough exchange between Tuco and his brother that had made such an impression on me included self-incrimination and invitation, but these were obscured by acrimony and personal baggage. In this HSB scene there was order, process, formula, to be sure, but also concealment. Only much later, as an inquiring Catholic-wannabe, did the meaning of this last element become clear to me: that rapport between penitent and priest was not essential to the sacrament because it was God himself who was doing the ultimate listening.

3. I Confess (1953)

Alfred Hitchcock took full advantage of the confessional’s dramatic potential in this powerful thriller. Montgomery Clift stars as Fr. Michael Logan, a parish priest in Quebec, who is summoned late one night to his church. There, in the pews, he confronts his caretaker, a refugee named Otto Keller, who is visibly upset. In the midst of a rambling disclosure to the priest about “abusing his kindness,” Otto gets an idea. At first he simply admits that he wants to confess, that he “must tell someone,” but then he stands, looks Fr. Logan square in the eyes, and explicitly declares, “I want to make a confession.”

Two lessons are implicit in this critical colloquy. First, there’s tremendous value in getting our misdeeds off our chests and into the open, even aside from sacraments and grace. Keller is a murderer, and, like Ray Donovan, he is wracked with the weight of his offense and its implications. The very human compulsion to confess things that plague our consciences is the first step in all recovery, as Alcoholics Anonymous has affirmed for generations.

Second, there’s an immense qualitative difference between owning up to things generally and confessing them sacramentally – which, in Otto Keller’s case, especially includes the confessional seal. “When a person unburdens his soul and confesses his sins to a priest in the Sacrament of Penance, a very sacred trust is formed,” writes Fr. William Saunders. “The priest must maintain absolute secrecy about anything that a person confesses.” For Keller, this means that he can unburden his soul to Fr. Logan without fear of exposure – setting up a tense narrative trajectory for the rest of the film. For the rest of us, however, the seal means that we have no reason to hold back, which facilitates absolute honesty in our revelations.

4. The Seventh Seal (1957)

One of the greatest films ever made, Ingmar Bergman’s meditation on mortality and meaning includes a wrenching and highly unconventional confessional scene. The penitent is Antonius Block (Max von Sydow), a disillusioned knight who has returned to his plague-ridden homeland after the Crusades. He has held off a personified Death by challenging him to a chessboard duel, which gives him time to come to terms with his inner pain.

When Block repairs to a church and approaches the confessional grille, it is Death, masquerading as a priest, who listens to the knight’s anguished litany of disbelief, despair, and self-disgust. “I want to confess as honestly as I can, but my heart is empty,” Block says. “And emptiness is a mirror turned to my own face.” Far from feigning absolution, Death makes use of his illicit vantage to gain insight into Block’s chess strategy, and the knight reacts with indignation. Still, after Death scurries away, Block marvels at his extended vitality and the hope of some kind of redemption it entails.

This last cinematic lesson in penitential reality came after I’d become a Catholic, but it was an important moment in my personal mystagogy. At some point, even the most passionate convert discovers that his motives are mixed, his virtuous aspirations are clouded by selfishness, and even his most solid convictions are salted with doubt. Block’s desperate desire for surety about God and life’s meaning, and his decision to keep seeking God by seeking to do good, gave expression to my own fragile faith experience.

Which brings me back to Ray Donovan. After laying bare his tortured conscience, Ray tries to cut a deal with God, but it doesn’t work that way. “You asked God for forgiveness – that has to be enough,” Fr. Romero explains. “The rest is out of your control.” There’s no bartering in the booth, no sure bets, no deals. Only fresh starts. “The human heart is heavy and hardened,” the Catechism reminds us. God “makes our hearts return to him” and he grants us “the strength to begin anew” (CCC 1432).

The same principle applies to every confession, from first to last, and it’s a tough lesson to learn. We exit that hidden refuge of redemption with enthusiasm and high expectations – everything is possible, even sainthood. Then, much sooner than we expect, we blow it again; the same anger, the same lust, the same avarice and ennui, the same old thing, and we’re back in line at the booth.

Don’t give up. Just keep going at it – it’s built into the system. Every confession is a first confession – or at least it could be. It should be.