The Sins of the Father

(Canada, 83 min.)
Written and directed by Terrance Odette
Starring: Michael Murphy, Katie Boland, Wendy Crewson, Suzanne Clément
Michael Murphy as Father Sam, and Annabelle McGregor as Maysa, in Fall.
  Photo by Melissa Connors. Courtesy of Mongrel Media.
“Do you believe in heaven, Father?” asks Reza (Cas Anvar) to Father Sam (Michael Murphy) after the priest says a funeral for Reza’s late mother.
“It’s worse than that,” replies Father Sam. “I believe in the other place, too.”

Fall, the austere new drama from writer/director Terrance Odette, places a hefty moral weight upon its central protagonist, Father Sam, as he tends to the members of his flock in his small Niagara Falls congregation. It’s no secret that attendance numbers are dwindling for the masses, and a few grim mutterings of the newfangled “And with your spirit” responses peppering Father Sam’s services are fair reminders that the Church might be out of touch, yet Fall presents an unlikely Father who perhaps knows too well the realm of damnation feared by the faithful.

Father Sam, as played by an excellent Michael Murphy, carries the moral and existential burden that comes with guiding the faith of so many believers—and would-be believers—and his many sleepless nights reveal a man grappling with many of the same questions of the afterlife as his parishioners. Reza, a gay man, charges Father Sam with being a “cafeteria Catholic” if he may pick and choose which lessons of the Bible to teach to his congregation, but Father Sam’s pragmatism is perhaps as much about atoning for his own sins as it could be a matter of keeping the church relevant to contemporary attitudes.

The potential sins of Father Sam’s past arise early in Fall when a letter addressed from Sault Ste. Marie offers a cryptic reminiscence of a night spent by the Father’s side. The lucid, feminine handwriting alludes to indiscretion, but it makes no explicit charge other than that Father Sam shared a special bond with this younger male correspondent. Can a lifetime of service make good on one past transgression, no matter how bad the crime and how fruitful the penance?

The sins of the Father come indirectly come into question as he guides a couple, played by Michael Luckett and a terrific Katie Boland, towards the sacrament of marriage. Father Sam witnesses a lapse in the fidelity by one of the fiancés and, as he confronts the obvious love between the two and the damage that would be caused by the truth, he finds himself at a moral crossroads between the light of heaven and the fires of hell.

Michael Murphy (Away from Her) gives an exceptionally subtle performance as Father Sam. He plays the conflicted clergyman with a caring, beleaguered grace. It’s obvious that Father Sam isn’t merely going through the motions as he prepares for each mass and guides his parishioners, but the weariness and the anxiety that creeps into Murphy’s character shows a man uncomfortable with his faith—perhaps because he believes so earnestly in the consequences he may face.

Fall avoids the did-he-or-didn't-he dynamic of films like Doubt and instead puts Father Sam's future into question with the weight he carries. Odette lets the complexity of Father Sam’s questioning develop in a deceptively simple story that puts the priest on several return trips up north to the Sault and contrasts his past with his present. The film puts Father Sam’s character directly in the crosshairs only once when one of his visits leads him to confront Catherine, the sister of the man with whom he allegedly had a past relationship. Fall leads this confrontation with a characteristically explosive performance from Suzanne Clément (Mommy), whose bitterness and anger renders the silence of their encounter palpably damning. Clément, performing notably well in English, makes a strong impact in her cameo as Catherine lays a charge on Father Sam. Face-to-face with the delicately shattered Father Sam, the film lets the viewers wonder whether the priest is shaken by his grief, shock, or exposure; however, the weight that Catherine carries from her brother’s burden provokes the audience to question the Father’s past, even if his actions were as seemingly innocent as he so believes. Was his sin not criminal misconduct, but, rather, abandonment?

As Father Sam revisits the burdens of his own soul while guiding those of his faithful, Fall asks if one can every fully escape one’s sins or atone for them completely. The cinematography by Norayr Kasper makes evocative use of the snowy Canadian winter as it alternatively uses the scenery to suggest the coldness and innocence of Sam’s crisis of faith. The final shot, drenched in a near-blinding whiteout of snow and ice, offers a provocatively ambiguous image of a man either damned or redeemed.

Rating: ★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

Fall is now available on iTunes from Mongrel Media.