Father Greg Pilkington, newly assigned to St. Mary's parish in inner-city Liverpool, is startled to discover Father Matthew Thomas is engaged in a sexual relationship with rectory housekeeper Maria Kerrigan. Moreover, Father Thomas is a left-wing radical and an outspoken proponent of Liberation Theology, leading him to constant clashes and bickering with the Bishop—who nevertheless appreciates his abilities.
While the young protagonist's personal traditional conservatism and religious beliefs are offended by the older priest's blatant disregard for his vow of celibacy, he struggles with his own homosexual urges, especially after he meets Graham at a local gay hangout and the two embark on a physical relationship.
Meanwhile, student Lisa Unsworth has confided she was sexually abused by her father, who confirms her story and displays no guilt nor any desire to stop. Both have revealed their secret in the confessional, however, so Father Greg is required to honour the sanctity of the Sacrament of Penance and not reveal what he has been told. He tries to warn her mother to keep a close watch on her, but the naive woman believes her daughter is safe while in the care of her husband.
When Mrs. Unsworth discovers her husband molesting Lisa and realises the priest knew what was happening, she lashes out at him. Adding to his torment is his arrest for having sex with Graham in a parked car. When he pleads guilty to the charge, the story is headlined on the front page of the local newspaper and, unable to face his parishioners, Father Greg relocates to a remote rural parish headed by a disapproving and unforgiving priest. Father Matthew convinces him to return to St. Mary's, and the two preside over a Mass that is disrupted by the loud protests of those opposed to Father Greg's presence on the altar. Father Matthew demands they leave the church. The two priests then begin to distribute the Eucharist, but the remaining parishioners ignore Father Greg and line up to receive communion from Father Matthew. Lisa finally approaches the younger priest, and the two fall into each other's arms sobbing.Linus Roache ..... Father Greg Pilkington
Tom Wilkinson ..... Father Matthew Thomas
Robert Carlyle ..... Graham
Cathy Tyson ..... Maria Kerrigan
Christine Tremarco ..... Lisa Unsworth
Robert Pugh ..... Mr. Unsworth
Lesley Sharp ..... Mrs. Unsworth
The film was shot on location in Blundellsands, Liverpool, London, and Manchester.
The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 1994. It went into general release in the UK on 17 March 1995 and into limited release in the US the following week. Opening on eight screens, it earned $113,430 on its opening weekend, and eventually grossed $4,165,845 in the US.
Priest received very vocal condemnation from the church, with the Catholic Church in Ireland in particular calling for a ban on theatrical distribution. This marked the first major disagreement between the Church and the Irish Film Censor Board, who decided to release it anyway. Other Catholic organizations were in an uproar over its release during Easter weekend.
Reviews for the film were mixed to average. Rotten Tomatoes rated the film with a 62% based on twenty-one critical responses. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times rated the film one star out of a possible four, calling the screenplay "shallow and exploitative." He added, "The movie argues that the hidebound and outdated rules of the church are responsible for some people (priests) not having sex although they should, while others (incestuous parents) can keep on having it although they shouldn't. For this movie to be described as a moral statement about anything other than the filmmaker's prejudices is beyond belief."
Peter Stack of the San Francisco Chronicle called it "an exceptional movie," "powerful drama," and "a curiously inspiring statement about faith and morality." He added, "This film is extraordinary for the themes it explores—sometimes with delicious humor—beyond the obvious . . . The movie becomes a fascinating glimpse at a vast subject—intolerance vs. understanding. There's some preachiness in Priest, and yet you go away feeling the embrace of something lovely and spiritual."
Gary Kamiya of The San Francisco Examiner observed, "After watching this film, you feel as if Martin Luther had hammered every one of his 95 theses onto various parts of your anatomy, using dull thumbtacks. And although Priest is not without intelligence, humor and pathos, in the end it's little more than a tendentious melodrama. One can sympathize with [its] progressive politics . . . and still feel that director Antonia Bird and screenwriter Jimmy McGovern have made things much too easy for themselves . . . Priest is less a work of art than an Op-ed piece; as such, whatever virtues it has exist in the sociological sphere, not the aesthetic."
Rita Kempley of The Washington Post said, "Part soap opera and part propaganda, this sometimes affecting drama presents a one-sided examination of the church's teachings on homosexuality and the celibacy of its clergy . . . Roache, a veteran of British stage and television, gives a stirring performance, which crests in the film's transcendent finale. Beautifully sustained by the actors and well directed by Bird, this last scene is an emotional epiphany for both the characters and the audience, all bathed in the balm of forgiveness."
Awards and nominations
The film was nominated for the BAFTA Award for Best British Film but lost to Shallow Grave. It won the People's Choice Award at the 1994 Toronto International Film Festival, was named Best New British Feature at the 1994 Edinburgh International Film Festival, and won the Teddy Award at the 1995 Berlin International Film Festival.