An unquestionably sincere call for change in the Catholic Church, "Conspiracy of Silence" unfortunately presents its cause with a desperate earnestness. Arguing for the elimination of priestly vows of chastity, first-time scripter-helmer John Deery lays out a story devoid of subtlety, in which characters are too easily pigeonholed and issues exist only in absolutes.

An unquestionably sincere call for change in the Catholic Church, “Conspiracy of Silence” unfortunately presents its cause with a desperate earnestness. Arguing for the elimination of priestly vows of chastity, first-time scripter-helmer John Deery lays out a story devoid of subtlety, in which characters are too easily pigeonholed and issues exist only in absolutes. With its meaty topic and good cast, pic should have strong fest legs but in the commercial arena will find support only among auds for whom criticism of the Church gives either shock or pleasure.

Prologue shows an enraged Father Sweeney (Patrick Casey) standing up in front of the Pope and cardinals at the Vatican, raising a placard and shouting, “The Church has AIDS!” He’s whisked away and pushed into a car, while a photographer captures his message, painted on his hands that he presses against the car window.

Three years later at the quiet Irish seminary of St. Saviour’s, Daniel (Jonathan Forbes), the school’s star athlete and looker, attracts the eye of Noel (Owen McDonnell) in a gratuitous shower sequence. Noel invites him to his rooms to “discuss ‘St. Paul’s Letters to the Thessalonians.'” Once there, however, Daniel firmly rejects Noel’s advances.

Nonetheless, Daniel is seen coming out of Noel’s room and is kicked out of the seminary. While Daniel’s parents are furious, his former girlfriend, Sinead (Catherine Walker), is delighted. Daniel now realizes he wants it both ways: to be reinstated into the seminary but also to marry Sinead.

Meanwhile, the distraught Father Sweeney dons full ecclesiastical garb and blows his head off with a long-barreled shotgun. His blood splatters on a photo of the Pope on the wall.

Investigating Sweeney’s suicide, local reporter David Foley (Jason Barry) learns the priest was HIV positive and also had a long-term relationship with an ex-priest, Matthew Francis (John Lynch). In a scene awash with melodramatic music and shot menacingly through a street window like a ’50s B-noir, Foley’s editor, Jim O’Brien (James Ellis), is threatened by the scary Monsignor Thomas (Fintan McKeown). Bribery and mysterious threats pile up until pic climaxes with a televised debate on priestly celibacy hosted by real Irish talkshow host Gay Byrne.

Despite winning a screenwriting award in 2001 and being workshopped at the Sundance Screenwriters Lab, Deery’s script translates into stock characters — from the gung-ho reporter to the evil bishop acting like a Mafia don. There are serious issues here, but “Conspiracy” fails to engage successfully in any real debate.

Still, amid such movies as “The Magdalene Sisters” and “The Boys of St. Vincent,” plus regular headlines about pedophile priests, there’s doubtless an audience for another tale of the Church’s ailments, even if it is as heavy-handed as this one.

First-rate group of actors is stuck with one-dimensional roles. Among the supports, Lynch (“In the Name of the Father,” “Sliding Doors”) does his best to endow the small part of Francis with appropriate anguish at losing his partner, while Brenda Fricker, as Daniel’s mother, has few scenes and even less motivation.

Tech credits are pro, with a misty Cornwall, in southwest England, credibly doubling for Ireland.

Conspiracy of Silence

U.K.

Production

A Little Wing Films presentation of a Flick Features production, in association with Mogirl Films. (International sales, Beyond Films, London.) Produced by Davina Stanley. Executive producers, Robert Bevan, Keith Hayley, Charlie Savill, Amanda Coombes, Stephen Margolis, Amit Barooah. Co-producers Matthew Hobbs, Peter Kinkead. Directed, written by John Deery.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Jason Lehel; editor, Jamie Trevill; music, Stephen W. Parsons, Francis Haines; production designer, John Ebden; art director, Dave Warren; costume designer, Suzanne Cave; sound (Dolby Digital), Jim Greenhorn; casting, Susie Bruffin. Reviewed at Taormina Film Festival (Grande Cinema), June 9, 2003. Running time: 86 MIN.

With

Daniel McLaughlin - Jonathan Forbes David Foley - Jason Barry Annie McLaughlin - Brenda Fricker Father Jack Dowling - Hugh Bonneville Matthew Francis - John Lynch Bishop Michael Quinn - Jim Norton Rector Eamonn Cahill - Sean McGinley Jim O'Brien - James Ellis Father Joseph Ennis - Hugh Quarshie Mary McLaughlin - Catherine Cusack Sinead - Catherine Walker Father Sweeney - Patrick Casey Monsignor Thomas - Fintan McKeown Noel Kinahan - Owen McDonnell Gay Byrne - Himself

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