The wearying, incessant rigors of inner-city parish work, along with the occasional emotional and spiritual satisfactions that reward it, are recorded with an engaging, dramatic simplicity in “Diary of a City Priest.” Eschewing melodrama and narrative contrivance the better to express the inner conflicts experienced by the central character, splendidly played by David Morse, Eugene Martin’s film sports a modest size and running time that immediately mark it more as tube fare than as a significant theatrical item, and the Independent Television Service presentation will duly bow on PBS domestically next month. But that shouldn’t rule out the occasional appropriate theatrical date down the line or, especially, fest dates internationally.
Title automatically courts comparisons to Robert Bresson’s 1951 classic “Diary of a Country Priest,” and Martin, whose previous features were “Two Plus One” (1994) and the teen crisis drama “Edge City” (1998), explicitly acknowledges his “great debt and gratitude” to the late French director in the end credits.
But the title comes from the book by Father John McNamee, in which he explored his trials as a priest in one of Philadelphia’s most blighted neighborhoods in the early ’90s and which was itself inspired more by “Country Priest” novelist Georges Bernanos than by Bresson. Given that Martin, wisely, in no way attempts to imitate Bresson, it is perhaps more useful to know that the helmer, at his Sundance Q-and-A, cited the influence of recent Iranian cinema as decisive for him; his direct, unmediated approach here not only bestows his film with a quiet, building understatement, but also reps a style refreshingly spartan and spare for American indie cinema.
The neighborhood surrounding St. Malachy’s parish in North Philly has changed considerably by 1992 from the solidly working-class area it had been a generation or two before. It’s now a black ghetto characterized by despair and desperation, and it’s all beginning to get to Father McNamee (Morse). A pensive middle-aged man seemingly more temperamentally suited to solitary reflection than to group interaction, Father Mac spends much more time than he would like dispensing meager bits of food from his personal shelves to the hungry homeless, being roused in the middle of the night to bail a kid out in night court or trying to fix the rectory boiler.
Chronically unable to get enough sleep or to find the time or funds for a refreshing trip to Ireland, Father Mac is beset by self-doubt, realizing that he toils “on the edges of church life” and sensing that his parishioners “see a pathetic lonely man on his way out.” And yet the locals continually seek him out for help and advice, his staff for church and elementary school events is dedicated and loyal, and he can see, albeit in rather isolated instances, that he does make a difference in some people’s lives.
Pared-down narrative is flecked with whimsical visits from assorted saints who briefly advise Father Mac on his various crises. Although the real Father McNamee was inspired by the ’60s activist priest Father Daniel Berrigan, pic steers entirely clear of social issue advocacy, keeping the focus very tight on its protagonist, who eventually begins to pull himself together with a renewed sense of purpose.
Accepting his personal limitations, Father Mac realizes that it is “important that the church stay here, close to all that need”; his dramatically satisfying spiritual epiphany is that, even while people as devout as he may continue to doubt and question, the church plays a crucial role by reaching into “the mystery that we call God” and that Jesus’ teachings represent a resonant attempt at clarity about the order of things.
Morse is outstanding, tellingly conveying the cumulative toll of selfless living and daily drudgery performed with little visible to show for it. Craft aspects are appropriately modest.