The Confessional: Dramatic Device Par Excellence

COMMENTARY: Hollywood Loves the Place Where Evil Meets Good, Sin Meets Mercy

Juan García Martínez, The Penitent, 1884
Juan García Martínez, The Penitent, 1884 (photo: Register Files / Public Domain)

“Receive the Holy Spirit,” said the risen Lord to his apostles. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” The sacrament of Penance, instituted by Christ himself, is one of the greatest gifts of Divine Mercy, but it is widely neglected. To help rekindle a new appreciation for such a profound gift of Divine Mercy, the Register presents this special section.


The Irishman is Martin Scorsese’s grand finale to the mafia film genre. Released late last year and showered with Oscar nominations, the three-and-a-half-hour epic moves toward the only conclusion it could have. The title character, played by Robert De Niro, goes to confession.

How could it be otherwise? The Irishman takes the long view of mob life, asking what it looks like from old age, on the threshold of eternity. The old mobster has evaded justice in this world; even if convicted and imprisoned, the murderer of many is beyond any strict balance of justice. The evil he has done cannot be met with any equitable punishment. And so what the justice of man cannot accomplish must be done by the mercy of God.

The Godfather trilogy of Francis Ford Coppola reaches the same point. In the third installment, when Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) is desperately trying to make his family “legitimate,” to launder his money into respectable enterprises, he has to go to confession. He can fool the world and hide from the authorities, but without confession it remains yet another fraud. So he confesses; reluctantly, even skeptically, but he confesses. And it is not cheap mercy. The confessor tells him, “Yours sins are terrible, and it is just that you suffer.” Corleone does suffer still more. There is penance.

But it is not just the mafia genre, with its Catholic characters who honor the Lord with their lips while their guns are far from him, that resorts to the confessional. Hollywood loves the confessional, for there is no more dramatic setting. There evil meets good, sin meets mercy.

More than that, the drama of every short story, novel, play or script is to discover the truth, in part or in whole. What really happened? Who really did it? What is that character really like? What does he really think? The confessional is loved by Hollywood because it is a sanctuary of truth. And without truth — contested, controverted, confused, contradicted, even concealed — there is no drama.

In the 2002 film Changing Lanes, the character played by Ben Affleck finds his life unravelling after attempting to cover up a car accident with his wealth and influence. The drama unfolds over a frenetic day in New York; and at one point, Affleck’s character, on the run from being caught, literally takes refuge in a church — in the confessional, to be precise, by accident. And there he must confront the reality of what he has done against the horizon of eternal questions.

He asks the priest about the meaning of life. After all, the “world is a sewer.” What does it all mean? The very successful people around him cannot answer that. So he goes to ask God — in the confessional.

In the 1981 film True Confessions, Robert Duvall stars as a police detective, and Robert De Niro (again!) plays his brother, a priest. Duvall is investigating a complicated tale of murder and hypocrisy and corruption in the Church, and, of course, it eventually ends up in the confessional.

There both sides arrive — on either side of the priest in an old-style confessional. The unrepentant criminal on one side, the brother detective on the other — the priest literally caught in the middle. And that is another drama of the confessional, the priest as the man in-between — between God and man, between the opinions of the world and the truth of what happened, between the demand to know and the obligation to keep secrets.

The seal of the confessional is the dramatic device par excellence. Critical knowledge, essential knowledge, held by a man but belonging only to God. It is almost irresistible for screen writers who have Catholic characters. Some of them likely create Catholic characters just so that the confessional becomes an artistic option.

Nowhere is that tension more evident than in perhaps the darkest priest film ever made, Calvary. Every character is deeply flawed. The priest is told in the confessional that he will be murdered in a week’s time. It’s a secret he must keep, a secret of his own mortal danger. He keeps the secret, protects the seal — to his death.

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1953 I Confess, set in the very Catholic Quebec City of the 1940s, employs the same dynamic.

A murderer confesses to the priest who, in turn, the penitent frames for the murder. As the priest is put on trial for a murder he did not commit, he cannot defend himself without betraying the seal, even though it is being put to evil purposes by the penitent. The priest defends the seal at risk of his own life, as capital punishment was a possible sentence. His fidelity finally inspires others to bear witness to the truth, at the risk of their own lives. Hitchcock’s murderer is eventually shot by the police and finds himself dying in the priest’s arms. And so the film ends where it begins, with the murderer-penitent asking for forgiveness, this time presumably with sincerity. The last lines of the movie are the formula of absolution: Ego te absolvo …

The most Catholic show currently on television is Blue Bloods, the New York City police drama about a family of Irish Catholic cops who go to church every Sunday and have family dinner afterward. Unsurprisingly, the show has recourse to the confessional, where the obligation to hold information comes up against the police desire to have it. In one particular episode Frank Reagan, the police commissioner played by Tom Selleck, asks a priest to break the seal in order to get information about a boy who has been kidnapped and is in danger.

“I have to ask a man something I have no right to ask of him, and if he refuses, I cannot accept it,” Frank says to the priest. “I’m asking a man, a good man, to break his oath — to save a boy’s life.” 

“I am not a man,” he replies. “I’m a priest.”

“You are both,” counters Frank.

In conversation about the whole matter with his own father, Henry Reagan, himself a former police commissioner, Frank is upbraided for trying to get the priest to do what he should not do. Henry, played by Canadian actor Len Cariou, gets at one aspect of the confessional rarely treated by Hollywood: not the heightened drama of a secret that must be kept in the face of enormous pressure, but the daily toil of bearing the weight of sin. That weight lies heavy on both a priest and a man.

“You did a shameful thing,” Henry tells his son Frank.

“And you know it.”

“Put yourself in Father Phil’s shoes,” Henry continues. “He has earned his right to protect the seal.”

“How?” Frank asks.

“You confess your sins. You say your three Hail Marys. You drop some change in the poor box on your way out. But the priest, he’s left with your sins. He absorbs your sins. He prays for you.”

“As he took a vow to do,” says Frank.

“Yes, and he has nothing but smiles and good cheer for the cheating husband and his innocent family when he sees them at church after Mass on Sunday,” Henry explains. “This costs a priest; times all the sinners, times all the years.”

Yes, it costs, but that price has been paid by the One in whose place the confessor stands. That costly drama remains always irresistible — for the penitent, for the priest and for the movie producer.

In This Series: