I don’t know how many Catholics are walking through this movie classroom, but if your impression of the holy sacrament of reconciliation looks and sounds like Steven Colbert’s “Midnight Confessions” bit on The Late Show, you are not all that far off according to Surviving Confession from director Matthew Tibbenham. There is a peculiar yet fascinating internal and external posturing match occurring between what is inane and what is spiritual that cannot be denied. Imagine the scenario, if you will.
LESSON #1: WHAT IT’S LIKE IN THAT LITTLE ROOM — You, the participant, have mustered the courage to come forward and willingly confess your mistakes in strict privacy. Juggling guilt and honesty, you find yourself face-to-face with a trustworthy figure of godly representation. That priest is there to listen without judgment, yet they now know intimate details. Even though “the seal of confession is absolute,” you have to shake hands and exchange pleasantries with this person when you leave the room and life goes on. This resulting absolution is meant to be a gift from the church, but not feeling some level of shame in doing so seems impossible.
Now imagine you’re the priest in this exchange. You have to both witness and share this wrenching process and ordeal repeatedly, with every visitor on every occasion, and remain unflappable and restrained in doing so. Who has it harder now? Breaking the fourth wall and spilling waterfalls of internal monologue, Surviving Confession pokes and prods the person who is supposed to be the pillar of strength. The film debuted July 30th on VOD platforms.
Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 actor Clayton Nemrow’s Father Morris is meant to be that man. He is the spiritual sponge soaking up the regurgitation of sins for years now. What used to carry odd pleasure that led to sterile gossip has become abrasive to the reverend’s patience. Father Morris chose this life of sacrifice, but questions whether it’s worth it anymore. Looking us in the eye and detailing his assertions, the crassness and exhaustion couldn’t be more clear, and Nemrow’s performance nails that exacerbated weight. His pointed monologues and irked unraveling raises our eyebrows and capture our immediate attention.
The hardest present button-pusher of this rapid deterioration is the troubled teen Amber, played with acidic bubble by Jessica Lynn Parsons. Crudely claiming she’s killed someone and cussing up a storm, she seems to be making a mockery of the activity. The wise side of Father Morris plays along with the doubts. He thinks he can beat her immature wit and not fall for her competitive games that try to pry and challenge so-called truths. Even the belligerence you see coming or see through can still wear down wills.
LESSON #2: HOW LONG CAN ONE TOLERATED POOR EFFORT OR RETURNS — Parishioner after parishioner, including an adulterous love triangle between a married couple (Kevin Ging and Jayne Marin) and a guilty mistress (Sarah Schreiber), come to the confessional just to say they tried. What’s the point when no one wants the help? The repetition is the bother. They’ll complete their tidy prayers of penance halfheartedly or less and end up right back with the same errors. Many on Father Morris’ watch do not attempt full redemption or corrective change. This adds to his growing disappointment in both the world and his lot in life.
LESSON #3: APPROPRIATE VS. INAPPROPRIATE — Like the wild swings of actions and intentions acted on by the core characters, Surviving Confession skirts the boundaries of this lesson’s contest. More than a little of Tibbenham’s movie is off-kilter and out-of-bounds, but that’s the point. Someone’s blasphemy alarm is going to launch if they take this movie too seriously. Still, even by satire standards, too many walls fall a little too easily and too many guarded principles get splintered. The power is in the talk and folks here talk hard.
The biting commentary of Surviving Confession makes for a wringer of self-reflection versus outward honesty. Writer Nathan Shane Miller, in his debut feature, penned this standoff of unhinged patronizing. The million-dollar line of his script is the big question of whether Father Morris can be “a bad priest but still a good man.” With each revealed secret, the debate rages and the language piles on to turn inner musings into brash outward disdain. Director Matthew Tibbenham charges Nemrow and Parsons to echo that growing rage. Staying tight and shrewd, Tibbenham effectively creates a precarious single-setting picture. The result is a trying yet damn interesting jaunt through prickly pressures and uncomfortable themes.