Fr. William, a priest in a local Irish Catholic church, is hearing confession one Sunday when Michael, an old parishioner, enters his booth, with some news: Michael has lung cancer and is facing a terminal diagnosis. Michael also has other revelations: one involving William himself, the role he played in the breakdown of Michael’s marriage — and the devastating consequences of that breakdown.
Now William must try to convince Michael to keep the truth under wraps — and grapple with his own moral dilemma as he is torn between his duty to offer God’s forgiveness and his own emotions and reactions.
Writer-director Paul Horan’s powerful, intimate drama interrogates the role that religion, and its human intermediaries, plays in human lives, questioning just what gives them the moral authority to dispense wisdom when they themselves are fallible. It’s also about the balance between social roles and personal choices, and the unexpected yet momentous impact that we can have upon one another.
The narrative is essentially a two-hander where the main characters are confined to a confessional booth, and its fulcrum involves a powerful secret strong enough to question the self-conception of its main character, not to mention up-end his life if the secret should get out.
The performances and writing dictate the aesthetic approach of the film, which uses nimble editing and well-composed shots that capture both words and reactions. Viewers will be hard-pressed to notice the visual limitations of setting — and indeed, the close quarters emphasizes both the intimate conflict between the two, as well as their separateness from one another.
Though relatively small in scale, the film is able to achieve a masterful dynamism, thanks to excellently crafted writing, which is brought to life by terrific performances that grapples with both the sensitive emotional dilemmas of the characters and the weighty subjects of morality, ethics and self-scrutiny. The storytelling lays out beautifully calibrated and paced emotional beats that subtly form the groundwork for an eventual powerful detonation.
Actors Phelim Drew and Francis Magee play the priest and his supplicant respectively, both offering performances that achieve subtle yet rich character arcs over the film’s fifteen minutes. Michael’s secrets are laid bare, and their personal impact upon Fr. William form the backbone of a story that shakes him out of what can be seen as his moral complacency. He is forced to reckon and account for his own human mistakes and limitations, especially when its consequences are so potentially devastating.
“Bless Me Father” is well-crafted, engaging and compelling, and it’s also a prime example of the power of words as the basis of human drama. The dialogue is heightened here, but still with a ear towards social realism and psychological nuance. Words — both spoken and unspoken — have powerful consequences in the world of the film, and both William and Michael use their words to provoke, cajole, shame and wound one another. By the film’s end, it’s unclear who has won, perhaps — but we understand that much has been lost, with such a resonant, devastating impact that it renders viewers as speechless as the priest himself.