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MANY SINS, FEW ANSWERS IN CONTROVERSIAL `PRIEST'

As "Priest" begins, a veteran priest in a poor Liverpool parish has been asked to retire. Outraged, he takes from the church a large, wooden crucifix with a figure of Christ and runs it through the windows of the bishop's office.

With that kind of beginning, one might expect "Priest" to be a harsh social satire, a wicked sendup of the Catholic Church or perhaps a dark criticism laced with edgy humor. But it is none of these."Priest" is strictly melodrama, as mawkish and contrived as any Hollywood film.

The central character is Father Greg (Linus Roache), a younger priest who arrives in Liverpool to replace the retiring priest. He shares quarters with ultra-liberal Father Matthew (Tom Wilkinson), and it doesn't take them long to realize they are completely disparate characters.

Father Greg is seemingly conservative and traditional, and after his first Mass, Father Matthew says he found the sermon "offensive."

Meanwhile, Father Matthew is quite the liberal, and Father Greg is aghast at his suggestion that understanding the needs of the people in the parish requires the breaking of certain rules.

But nothing seems to prepare Father Greg for his discovery that Father Matthew has broken his vow of celibacy and that their housekeeper (Cathy Tyson, of "Mona Lisa") is his lover. "Are you judging me?" Father Matthew asks in a rage.

At this point, the film would seem to be about the conflicts of these two priests, a metaphor for the social and spiritual issues that cause dissension within the Catholic Church itself.

So, it's a bit of a surprise that a few moments after his "judgment" of Father Matthew, we see Father Greg put on a black leather jacket, climb on his bicycle and go cruising in a gay bar, followed by a graphic homosexual encounter.

Father Greg feels conflicted about this and struggles with it. And soon, another conflict confronts him as a young girl comes to him in confession and tells him that she's being sexually abused by her father. Should Father Greg tell the girl's mother? He'd like to, but that would violate his vow of confessional secrecy.

Things are further complicated by the girl's father. Not only is he abusing his daughter, he actually advocates incest and says he has made a "lifelong study" of the subject to justify his actions.

"Priest" is a film that seems to purposely push all the right buttons in order to court controversy. Questions are raised, but in extraordinary circumstances. Still, the irony is clear as a priest feels justified in breaking one vow for the sake of his own personal pleasure, yet keeps another that will perpetuate someone else's suffering.

The performances are excellent, especially Roache and Wilkinson, but the movie never builds the emotional resonance it needs. And in the end the subjects that are touched on seem to be dealt with too simplistically.

"Priest" is rated R for gay sex, profanity and vulgarity.