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#203. Priestly Step-fathers

One of the most overused clichés in fairy tales is that of the step-family. How often have you heard the story of the evil step-mother? The nasty step-sisters? Often, the birth parents have both died, which eventually leads to this less-than-desired situation. First, the mother dies (probably through childbirth), which leads to the father re-marrying. Once the father dies, the step-mother’s true nature is finally revealed and the antagonist is enforced. Unfortunately, this cliché is not just relegated to the realm of fairy tales, or to the matriarch of the mixed family. Step-fathers can also be quite nasty, especially since they are the ones in charge of the new family, regardless of the mother’s authority. To add insult to injury, some step-fathers are part of the church, just adding to their antagonist rap sheet. This week’s two films focus on priestly step-fathers as villains.

Fanny and AlexanderFanny and Alexander
Year: 1982
Rating: R
Length: 188 minutes / 3.13 hours

While priests are often thought of as celibate singles who dedicate their lives to the church, some sects do allow them to marry. However, the rigors of obeying the multitude of religious laws and regulations often causes these men to develop very strict child-rearing techniques. Behaviors that question or belittle their authority are quickly and severely corrected with sometimes severe disciplinary actions. Children in these types of households are often stifled and required to act like adults, even at a young age. There is no love, only rules. Considering the main teachings of Jesus, this is quite ironic, but it highlights just how distorted religion has made the gospel message about sin management instead of grace and forgiveness. Add to this the different set of rules from a previous marriage and suddenly the kids are up in arms against their priestly step-father.

Edvard Vergérus (Jan Malmsjö) is a widower and bishop in the small Swedish town of Uppsala. Living with his family (which includes his mother, sister, and aunt), Edvard is the only male in the house. That was until he married recently widowed Emilie (Ewa Fröling), who brought two young children into his home. Now the eponymous Fanny (Pernilla Allwin) and Alexander (Bertil Guve) are finding their new step-father to be rather strict, even despite their mother’s attempts at livening up their new home. Unfortunately, Alexander, the new male in the house, is constantly at odds with Edvard, himself being a strict disciplinarian. Even though Emilie now finds herself pregnant with the bishop’s child, she manages to escape with her two children from the oppressive household. She is not allowed to divorce Edvard, so the only option for their freedom is his death.

The Night of the HunterThe Night of the Hunter
Year: 1955
Rating: Approved
Length: 92 minutes / 1.53 hours

Taking the cliché of the priestly step-father a step further, often we find criminals posing as men of the cloth in order to avoid suspicion from the authorities. These wolves in sheep’s clothing have realized that the reputation of a priest often precedes them, even if it is an erroneous assumption. In this way, they can continue to commit crimes without being suspected of any wrongdoing. After all, if the man who teaches that we should not sin ends up sinning himself, his credibility would come under intense scrutiny. Because of this, these pretend priests still need to be careful to conduct their crimes in secrecy, lest the word get out about who they really are. If they are able to successfully do so, they are usually the last person the police would suspect, and thus will get away with the crime with no repercussions.

Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) is a literal ladykiller, in both senses of the word. With his cover as a self-proclaimed priest firmly in place, he is unable to be touched by the law, which never suspects the switchblade-wielding man of the cloth. His latest target is Willa Harper (Shelley Winters), a recent widow whose former husband revealed the secret of a stolen fortune to their two kids, John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce). Willa is oblivious to Powell’s intentions and allows him to get close to the family in order to find the ill-gotten gains. This ignorance leads to her death, and now John and Pearl are forced to flee the serial killer. Fortunately, they come across Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), a tough woman who has a penchant for looking after lost children. Now all they have to do is wait for the police to realize Powell’s true nature and come to arrest him.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 paternal priests

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One response to “#203. Priestly Step-fathers

  1. Pingback: End of Act Four | Cinema Connections

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