Saturday, March 17, 2012

#14: Absolution

Drive In Movie Classics
Disc 4: Side A

“What are we but a little blood and a little flesh and a collection of bones?” So says Father Goddard, played dourly by a dour-faced Richard Burton as the dour patriarch of a Catholic boarding school in the dour-looking English countryside. It’s all very--what’s the word? Dreary? Dismal? It starts with a d. It’s on the tip of my tongue.

The point is, Goddard isn’t one for levity. Benjie (Dominic Guard), Goddard’s star pupil, knows this better than anyone. Early on in Absolution, we see Benjie fall under the sway of Blakey (Billy Connolly in his big screen debut), a charismatic, banjo-playing, motorbike-riding, hammock-sleeping drifter who has set up camp in the forest near the boarding school. Blakey is about as far as can be from Father Goddard, who surely has a staunch no banjo, no motorbike, no hammock policy, though the film doesn’t specify.

Benjie and Blakey spend their time catching fish, drinking beer, and discussing the faults of Father Goddard. Blakey urges Benjie to play a prank on him: During confession, Benjie tells Goddard he had sex with his wildly-bearded drifter friend. “Blakey says we should experience everything,” explains Benjie, “then judge for ourselves.” Horrified, Goddard forbids Benjie from seeing Blakey again, then calls the local police. Like bluegrass-hating fascists, the police storm into Blakey’s camp, smash his banjo, and beat the poor strumming bastard senseless. By the time Benjie gets there, Blakey is awake but angry. He orders Benjie to leave, blaming him. Despondent, Benjie picks up a heavy stone and makes as if to hit Blakey. The film cuts. We see Benjie running frantically through the woods. What happened?

In confession, Benjie tells Goddard he killed Blakey. “I hit his head as hard as I could,” he says, sobbing. He couldn’t bear Blakey rejecting him, and he tells Goddard the body is buried in the woods. Goddard is alarmed, though still dour. When he finds the grave, he discovers a scarecrow with a jack-o’-lantern head--not a corpse. Blakey and some of the other boys from school are nearby, laughing: Another prank. Goddard is furious--and yes, extremely dour.

In confession the next day, Benjie claims he's now gone through with the murder: “I picked up a stone like I told you before. Only this time I hit him.” Goddard isn’t sure what to believe. He returns to the woods. There, he finds Blakey’s body. The man will never strum again. And yet, having learned of the murder in confession, Goddard is unable to alert the police.

You see, earlier in the film Goddard explained to his students, “The priest is an intermediary, a middleman between the penitent and almighty God. It is for this reason incidentally that the priest is bound to secrecy. Even, for example, if I told my priest I was tempted to murder someone tonight--even then the priest could only warn me my soul was in mortal danger.”

In other words, it’s wise to avoid heavy-handed foreshadowing in daily conversation. Goddard urges Benjie to turn himself in, but Benjie refuses. In fact, he confesses to Goddard his plan to murder Arthur Dyson, the school’s glasses-wearing, leg-brace-sporting outcast, who Goddard seems to hate as much as his students do. When Dyson disappears, Goddard’s dour exterior starts to crumble. Is Benjie’s murderous plan real or yet another hoax? Can he break his oath to God in order to save one of his flock?

Though Absolution is more of a character study than it is a thriller, there are actually quite a few interesting twists to the story. And all joking aside, Burton delivers a solid performance, as does David Bradley, who plays Arthur Dyson: You understand Goddard’s aversion to Dyson’s sycophantic, wheedling ways. Yet Dyson’s the most sympathetic character in the film. Really, he’s the only sympathetic character--which is Absolution’s greatest strength and it’s greatest weakness. It’s a film very much of its time: Dark, cynical and hopeless in the way only a film from the 70s about religious hypocrisy can be. At the very least a character like Father Goddard, who finds his most deeply-held beliefs coming into question as he tries to navigate unfamiliar territory, should engender some empathy. The film, however, has no such empathy for him. Sure, the seriousness of subject matter is surprising amid the hordes of vampires and ninjas found here in the Fifty Pack. But ultimately, Absolution is a little too dour for its own good.   

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