A Catholic priest in the midst of a personal crisis of faith, confiding privately with his audience, eyes locked to camera, may feel familiar to fans of Fleabag’s stunning second series, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Andrew Scott’s now iconic unlikely romantic foils.
But Father Morris’ fourth wall-breaking confessional opens Surviving Confession, which was shot and completed four years before the series aired on the BBC. This impressive independent feature is now finally finding an audience after its release on major streaming platforms.
Wimbledon-based filmmaker Matthew Tibbenham developed his tools working as an assistant for director Scott Derrickson on his 2012 film Sinister, most notably the impressive ability to exercise creativity with a minimal budget.
Derrickson’s horror film was made for just $3million, while Tibbenham and screenwriting collaborator Nathan Shane Miller produced their debut feature for a fraction of that cost.
Primarily set within the confines of a small confession room, Morris begins, with caustic self-awareness, by dispelling the myth that all Catholic confessionals are private and anonymous.
Over 90 minutes, Morris hears the outpouring of secrets and regrets from a number of unlikely parishioners and come to an unexpected realisation about his faith as his confidants reveal harsh truths about their own.
Surviving Confession could be read ostensibly as among the current trend of American faith-based films, pandering to willing Christian audiences with uplifting, faith-affirming underdog stories.
Morris isn’t quite as cynical as Fleabag’s Priest; he criticises the stigma of priests as sexual predators, and at one point attempts to discourage the autonomy of a foul-mouthed young woman, Amber, by telling her to hold off sex until marriage.
There are messages that could definitely be taken as pro-Catholicism, or at least pro-faith, but Tibbenham is keen for audiences to approach the film with secular perceptions, too.
In this case, Paul Shrader’s First Reformed is the most appropriate recent comparison. Both utilise a religious aesthetic to parallel difficult and universal truths with a deeply personal character study.
Tibbenham doesn’t quite master the creeping sense of dread that makes Shrader’s film so gripping, as he said he actively avoided using any voyeuristic or confined shots that lend themselves more towards the horror genre, but the performers involved are all compelling vehicles for Miller’s provocative script that is sure to leave you second-guessing your own ethical codes.
The director also demonstrates an unexpected savviness for camera control that is rare to find in low to no-budget features.
Single-location dramas often fall into the trap of feeling isolated and stagey, but Tibbenham and cinematographer Mark Farney use these constrictions to their full advantage.
Father Morris confronts the camera with commanding, frontal shots, until his diverse range of parishioners interrupt his musings, to both himself and the viewers, and the camera becomes scattered, distracted.
Each confession’s intimate dialogue is balanced with a carefully crafted visual story, revealing stark truths that illuminate questions and conflicts about our own situations.
A masterfully constructed timelapse shot is the most formally impressive aspect of Surviving Confession.
At once highlighting the painful monotony of Morris’ role in the church, and the paradoxical loneliness of sitting, listening to his parish, hearing but not sharing beyond shallow advice and half-hearted disciplinaries. The timelapse is certainly a common occurrence in contemporary media, but gives Tibbenham’s indie efforts a much-needed professional sheen.
What may have worked better as a close-quarters stage play eventually manages to evolve beyond its single-location gimmick. Surviving Confession may not blow minds with its filmmaking prowess, but Tibbenham manages to inject some cinematic life into Miller’s ponderous and provocative script that is sure to provoke extended debates.
Surviving Confession is available on Amazon Prime, iTunes and Google Play.