Disobey the Church, disobey God.
Man, did the critics ever slam this movie when it first came out… but I was in the mood for an action film, so I went with a similarly-minded friend and as we left the theater, our universal agreement was “that wasn’t brilliant, but it was incredibly cool.” Others have weighed in heavily on the film — how much it borrowed from traditional action movies, how the plot needed work, and so forth… but that’s not really my cup of tea. I never just watch a movie, I see something in the film, whatever message it is attempting to convey, whether or not it means to. And Priest has a lot of messages in it… messages that maybe didn’t make secular critics all that comfortable, because they are universal and moral and speak to individuals of genuine faith, as opposed to the so-called church-going masses. You can take it as a moral lesson, a statement about the role of corrupt government, or as a straight-up allegory.
I’ve always loved alternate realities and stylized worlds, because like most people, I know in my heart there is more than this; that we humans are mere shells, dim reflections, of our true purpose, that we are shadows of what we are meant to be and would have been without the Fall. Just as our craving for super heroes speaks to our inborn desire for a savior, our fascination with worlds in which powers are manifested more easily and visibly speaks of our inner desire to be more. I love the world Priest creates, because it is rich and barren and symbolic of life without true individual faith, in which only a few Priests stand in the gap between humans and the evil that lurks in the darkness. The war was won and the Church has become incredibly powerful, so much so that it has conformed into a massive government that controls everything, and is so drunk on its own authority that it refuses to acknowledge the darkness waking in its midst. The Priests that have given up everything to become the gifted warriors that they are now serve no purpose and are outcasts from society, remnants of a forgotten past but incapable of conforming to the ways of the world. The Church has rendered them obsolete. It is a world in which Confessionals are a dime a dozen and you speak your confession through a communicative device, which then consoles you and tells you how many religious rites to perform in order to have absolution.
Vampires have been defeated… or so the Church professes… but when evidence reveals otherwise, one Priest leaves the fold and rebels to show the world the truth. If one wants to get literal, this is kind of a visual otherworldly representation of Martin Luther, abandoning the collective Church Establishment when he discovers the reality of Christianity. His former purposes are foregone as he finds the strength to rebel against a far more powerful force than him alone — and in doing so, recruits others to his cause (in this film, the Priestess). The Church he faced is not much different from the Church in this alternate reality — one comfortable in its excesses, powerful enough to influence everyone and everything, and believing itself infallible in its teachings. Even its mantra of “defy the church, defy God!” is reminiscent of the Middle Ages European Church. Both fail from having placed themselves on equal footing with God, through the profession that they have become infallible just as He is, and disobedience to them as His Messengers is akin to direct disobedience against God. Just as Martin took that risk, so does Priest.
However, interestingly, the Church’s insistence that the threat has been neutralized and the vampires are dead is much like modern secularism, in the belief that evil does not exist and therefore can do no harm. (There are even a few faiths that believe Satan no longer exists, and the evil in our world is the “remnant” of his authority.) It is their total denial that makes them vulnerable to attack, and without the intervention of Priest and Priestess (and their law man sidekick) there would have been a slaughter beyond imagination. Which brings me to my favorite element of the film, its symbolism of Christians on the whole: the Priest is the only one who knows the truth, and therefore the burden of responsibility falls on his shoulders to protect the innocent, no matter how little thanks he gets or if they ever even know what he has done for them. His role as an Intercessor is much like ours for the lost; just as Christ is our Intercessor, we are to act as Intercessors on earth, doing everything we can to protect others from evil, through prayer and discipleship. Only Christ can save them, but we can show them the way and pray for intercession on their behalf in the meantime. Priest is an interpretation of each of our roles in this world, and our duty as believers to fight evil and be constantly aware of it, even in a world that professes its non-existence. We must stand up for what we know is right, regardless of the consequences. Conformity to the world cannot be allowed to take root in our hearts — Priest and Priestess have given up everything to serve God, and believe in Him outside the rigid, controlling, self-serving element of the Church. Their vows of chastity are difficult for them, but represent our own promise to remain pure and untainted by the world.
There is also a not so subtle hint here about powerful, corrupt governments and civil disobedience for the good of all, but more interesting to me is the underlining truth that illustrates that when faith becomes a cultural aspect of our lives rather than a personal choice, civilizations suffer. It becomes a habit you grew up with that influences a few aspects of individual lives but not the rest, and when there is no personal commitment to Christ, there is no salvation in the person and no change in their behavior. The trappings of men complicate our relationship with God and seem to push us further away from Him than we actually are; our only Intercessor is Christ. Priest is trapped in this cultural aspect of his faith, stuck in confessional booths and at an arm’s length from Church officials, until he chooses to do God’s will on his own. Our relationship with Him must be personal and consistent, otherwise it is no relationship at all. Unfortunately, there is a lot of that in our society today, with children who grew up something and kept portions of it in their adult lives but never made a personal commitment to Christ… who go to church rarely and fail to commune with other believers, as we are told to do. If every single person in our world today who identified themselves as a Christian actually were one and behaved like it, we would live in a much different world.
Disobey the church, disobey God? Not so much, particularly if the Church fails to represent the infallible Truths of God.