Even if you devote your own life to comforting others, is it ever possible to atone for a mortal sin that may have wrecked someone else’s? What if you don’t remember, or have forced yourself to disremember, the particulars of that transgression? Those are among the questions that weigh heavily on the consciousness, and the conscience, of the Catholic priest Michael Murphy portrays in “Fall,” writer-director Terrance Odette’s rigorously spare 2014 Canadian-produced drama, now available on VOD and other home formats.
As he steadily follows his conflicted protagonist through a wintry stations of the cross in and around his parish in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Odette edges viewers toward consideration of moral complexities, and places them in the uncomfortable position of observers who are by turns instinctively sympathetic and darkly suspicious. All in all, this may actually be a film that benefits from being contemplated, if not during the long dark night of the soul, then at least in the privacy of one’s inner sanctum.
In a subtly nuanced, career-highlight performance, Murphy plays Father Sam, an aging cleric who dutifully and compassionately tends to the needs of his flock (which, the film hints, is gradually diminishing in an increasingly secular age). When asked by the adult son of an elderly parishioner, recently deceased, if he “ever gets used” to delivering last rites and presiding over funerals, Father Sam immediately responds: “No, I never have.” Murphy requires only a flicker of melancholy in his expression to suggest the empathetic pain Father Sam has felt again and again. And when the son (exceptionally well played by Cas Anvar) reveals that he is gay — and, because of that, often was made to feel ashamed by his deeply religious mother — Father Sam diplomatically suggests that perhaps not everyone who’s been made to feel they’re bound for hell will reach that dire final destination.
But when he receives a letter from a former parishioner who indicates that, 40 years earlier, he was sexually molested by the priest, Father Sam is forced to consider his own failings — even as he doubts, or dearly wants to doubt, the recollection of the person who has reached out of the past to backhand him.
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“Fall” is provocatively evasive when it comes to clarifying precisely what happened on a fateful night long ago, but implies that, never mind the particulars, Father Sam feels he faltered. Odette doesn’t try to explain or exonerate his protagonist. Rather, he wants his audience to share the feelings of a man — maybe good, maybe bad, maybe both — who is gradually pushed toward fearing that, no matter what he has done after what may or may not have happened, he will never be relieved, never be redeemed, never be forgiven.
Cinematographer Norayr Kasper and composer Nick Storring enhance the overall ambiance of stark, stripped-to-essentials emotional and aesthetic rawness that might have made Robert Bresson proud, and the supporting players — especially Anvar, Katie Boland as a bride-to-be who wants Father Sam to turn a blind eye to her shortcomings, and, in a devastating one-scene cameo, Suzanne Clément as the wife of the man Father Sam may have traumatized — are everything they should be. And throughout the entirety of “Fall,” Murphy unassumingly serves notice that proficient character actors we often take for granted really shouldn’t be.