Actor Paul Bettany, a self-described atheist, has starred in a string of movies hostile to Christianity, including “The Da Vinci Code,” “Legion,” “Creation” (in which he played Charles Darwin) and now, the cream of the corrupted crop: “Priest.”

Given his track record, and his steady salvo against the faith, I’m left to wonder if the former Roman Catholic doesn’t have some serious issues with his former church.

Upon making “The Da Vinci Code” (in which Bettany played a creepy, murderous monk), the actor said, “I’d love to make a movie that shakes the world and offends people.”

And while I doubt the dull and almost laughably bad “Priest” will “shake the world,” there’s no doubt this film will “offend people,” most especially his former pew mates.

For outside of a few brief flickers of internal conflict in which Bettany’s character must choose between following God or following the Church (more about that later), “Priest” is little more than some bland action sequences interrupting an unapologetically brazen 87 minutes of scorning, mocking and vilifying the Vatican.

“Priest” is set in an alternate reality where vampires and humans have been at war from the beginning of recorded time, a war that waged without victor and at great cost to the earth, until the humans at last bred a super-squad of ninja-like warriors called the “priests.”

Now in a 1984-like post-apocalyptic future, the vampires have been confined to prison camps, and the humans are mostly gathered in walled, industrialized cities run by the Church, which offers its mostly mindless minions government and protection in exchange for their individuality, freedom and human dignity.

But there is no God, no Jesus in this future, there is only the communist-like control of the Church.

While the people in Cathedral City may be faithful (indeed several characters pray and quote Scripture in the film), the Church’s leaders are deceitful and manipulative. Every day, the monsignors use the public address system and billboards and lights to remind the people of their mantra: “Faith, Work, Security.”

The senior monsignor’s voice can always be heard in public broadcast and on the lips of the city’s citizens: “Remember, to go against the Church is to go against God.”

The film’s hostile critique of the actual Catholic Church is obvious, made even more so by a scene in which the rite of Confession is shown to be nothing more than an empty, ritualized method of thought control.

When one of the city’s elders declared, “Questioning the authority of the Church is forbidden,” I could practically hear the ghosts of the filmmakers’ past and wanted to scoff, “Still working out our childhood resentments, are we?”

I’m not sure there’s enough holy water in Rome to dilute the venom in this movie.

Setting the anti-Catholicism aside for the moment, the film has a few positives: Bettany is actually cast well and plays a compelling character as the lead Priest, Christopher Plummer is a convincing and despicable totalitarian and the film mercifully ends after only 87 minutes.

But the script and dialogue are so amateurish, my eyes haven’t stopped rolling yet. The plot is predictable. Karl Urban was horribly miscast as the villainous “Black Hat” (yes, that’s actually his name; the writing is so bad in this film, most of the characters aren’t even given names), and the rest of the film is flooded with shallow characters who were cast right out of a modeling agency without regard for talent or fit (I guess in the future, all humans are gorgeous but talentless – call it the “Megan Fox effect”).

Alas, I think there could have been an interesting angle to the story, as Priest is confronted with the choice of doing right or doing the will of the Church, following truth or following the monsignors.

He’s even told – by a fellow priest – at the film’s climax, “Our power doesn’t come from the Church, it comes from God. … With or without the clergy, we’re still priests.”

As a former Catholic – now evangelical Protestant – myself, my ears perked up at the possibility of an honest debate about the authority of the church versus the conscience of the believer. I was rooting for the moral of the story to emerge from the vitriol of the moviemakers’ personal issues. I wanted to trace a metaphor in the film that would reflect on my own experience of choosing between what I believe to be biblical truth over Catholic doctrine.

But unfortunately, such a metaphor couldn’t fully emerge from the movie’s cocoon, and an “honest debate” isn’t really possible when the platform for said debate is so horribly slanted and hell-bent on vilifying one side of the argument.

Content advisory:

  • “Priest” is fairly light on obscenities, racking up fewer than a dozen foul and/or profane words, though it does blast one “F-word” prominently.
  • The movie is not light, however, on violence. Knife fights, gunshots, decapitations, exploding guts, blood everywhere – the movie is about a war against a brutally violent enemy, so there’s plenty of gore to go around. It doesn’t focus on the carnage, like say, “The Expendables” or “Saving Private Ryan,” but when creatures are killed, you know they’re dead. And there’s plenty of dead.
  • Sexuality is limited to a shirtless guy and a young woman wearing a top that shows some cleavage (before she realizes it and buttons up). While there’s some brief talk of off-screen romances, there’s nothing explicit shown on screen. Not even a kiss.
  • Except for the existence of the vampires – who are simply said to have evolved into a separate species of animal-like being – and a blood ceremony, only briefly seen, where a human is turned to vampire, there are no overtly occult elements. The film is drowning in religious references, however, including praying characters, crosses, a Confessional and direct quotes from Psalm 23, Psalm 51 and other scriptural passages. The main theme of the movie is the role of the Church, so symbolism is everywhere. Meaningful discussion about God, however, is noticeably absent. The “Church” might as well be a political party, for all the spiritual significance it has in “Priest.”

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