Diary of a City Priest
Directed by Eugene Martin
Independent Television Service/PBS

The latest project by independent director Eugene Martin continues a noble legacy of understated films on PBS (check local listings for broadcasts in April) that show church leaders in a sympathetic light. (Others include Jonathan Demme's Cousin Bobby in 1992 and Joel Oliansky's The Silence at Bethany in 1998.)

Diary of a City Priest draws some of its narrative structure from Diary of a Country Priest (1950) by the late French director Robert Bresson. While Bresson's film draws on the acclaimed novel by Georges Bernanos, Diary of a City Priest is based on the nonfiction book by John McNamee, who has served at St. Malachy's Catholic Church in Philadelphia for 32 years.

Inspired by Daniel Berrigan, the Catholic priest best known for his protests of the Vietnam War, McNamee asked to be assigned to an urban parish in the late 1960s, and he has been at St. Malachy's ever since. Unlike Berrigan, however, the McNamee depicted here is a quiet and even weary figure.

With doleful eyes and a deadpan face, McNamee (played by David Morse) empties the rectory's cupboard as poor people approach him for help. The way Martin lights the faces of the poor and frames them in the rectory's back doorway, it's easy to understand Mother Teresa's reference to seeing the face of Jesus in the distressing disguise of the poor.

Strangely, though, McNamee keeps his interaction with these night visitors to a minimum. He barely speaks to them, and makes them wait outside while he fills grocery bags with canned goods. Some moments of Diary of a City Priest leave the impression that, while McNamee is generous with groceries, bail money, or arranging scholarships for promising students, ...

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