There are priests who take speed. There are priests who drink a lot. And there are priests who get involved in bar-fights in Verona (you’ll have to trust me on this). And yet still, actors prefer to play hit-men. The ratio of leading-men-playing-priests to leading-men-playing-killers is laughable. The killers win out, categorically. Even though… priests look good in black; priests live outside normal society; priests are often present at the moment of death, like hit-men. Actors – like most people – tend to confuse priests with those cardboard, thin men who work in libraries: the ones who shush life. But priests seem estranged from us because we hide from reality. Who knows death better than a priest? Who else prays for murderers?
In The American, George Clooney plays a professional killer who seeks sanctuary in rural Italy. While in hiding, he is befriended by a priest. Thankfully, this man is not the kind of priest we so often see in movies; he does not sermonise, or talk like a self-help book. Instead, he sees the heart of the killer immediately. He invites George to dinner. “All the sheep in my flock are dear to me,” he says. “But some are dear the most. Especially those that have lost their way.” George half-hears this annoucement. Like most laymen (to be honest, like most priests) he is distracted by a beautiful woman. Besides the priest, she is his closest confidante: a vivacious small-town prostitute who looks like she could be on the cover of Italian Vogue.
This is a good role for Clooney. Ever since he threatened a hostage in From Dusk Till Dawn (putting a gun to her head: “I got six little friends and they can all run faster than you can”), he’s been adept at playing bad men. Here, it’s almost a mature role. He doesn’t do the sideways cock of the head he used to do. He doesn’t snap at people. His life – even as a hit-man – has a middle-aged pace. I say “almost mature” because it’s still George Clooney playing a hit-man. He still gets the girl. He still dresses well. He has better sex than anybody. He wipes out the opposition without fuss; and lives in Italy, never mentioning politics. Don’t be fooled by the languor: this is a frothy movie. Quiet isn’t always space for thought.
The intellect of The American rests with the priest. How fascinating the movie would have been if Clooney played this role. There’s a great moment where the hit-man confronts the priest, wanting him to confess to fathering a bastard…and the priest says how, even in his shame, he is still grateful for his mistake; grateful, for all the “paternal love” he feels for his son. “You cannot deny the existence of hell,” says the priest. “You live in it. It is a place without love.” This isn’t the office of the priesthood speaking, nor a pious do-gooder. It’s the voice of a man, who is also a priest; a man who understands lust, and envy, and violence… who feels these things, and who consoles the men who act on these feelings. This priest does not see sin as “other”. He sees sin as human. A good priest, like this man, is the least easily shocked… outside of prostitutes, and killers.
To offset all the weighty talk of men’s souls (fear not, ye producers), the lead actress in The American appears naked constantly. She can’t even accidentally discover a clue to Clooney’s real identity without flinging her clothes off as well. The first time we meet Violante Placido, she walks into a bedroom, strips off her knickers, and says “Hello, my name is Clara.” In a later scene, Clooney gives her such an orgasm, she gives up prostitution. It’s a pretty silly role. Thousands of women have played this part before, and thousands will again, but that doesn’t make it any less ridiculous. Violante Placindo looks wonderful as she says her lines, and you believe her… but enough with the compassionate-hooker fantasy.
There’s an old joke among Catholics. Jesus announces to the disciples at the Last Supper that: “One of you will betray me”. One-by-one, the disciples ask, fearfully, “Is it me, Lord?” And to each of them, Jesus answers, “No”. Finally, Judas asks, “Is it me, Lord?” And Jesus replies, in his best whiny jerk-voice, “Is it me, Lord? Is it me?” Thus destroying Judas with sarcasm… A lot of priests find that joke very funny. What it proves is: most people don’t know priests. In The American, the priest tells the hit-man: “A man can be rich, if he has God in his heart.” He doesn’t say “goodness”; he doesn’t mean it. He means “rich”, as in: fully human. All men – all priests – are intimate with sin. The best of us are those who forgive sinners.