Grosbard’s 1981 film True Confessions begins with what is probably the best existing depiction of the Catholic Latin Mass, “celebrated” by Robert DeNiro, who reportedly insisted on learning to say the entire liturgy correctly and did every take as a full solemn high nuptial mass (its most elaborate form). The scene lingers notably on the mass, clocking in at about three and a half minutes of Latin ceremonial before giving viewers a reprieve.
The film is ostensibly one of many takes on the famous Black Dahlia case, but the true crime aspect is really just a thin framing device on which screenwriter and novelist John Gregory Dunne (himself an Irish Catholic who grew up a stone’s throw away from yours truly in Hartford, CT) hangs the greater cosmic struggle for the soul of the Catholic Church in America as played out in the sibling rivalry of the Spellacy brothers: Des (DeNiro), a pious but compromised priest and diocesan bureaucrat, and Tom (Robert Duvall), himself a marginal Catholic whose faith seems to hang by a thread being perpetually gnawed at by his righteous indignation and world wariness, in addition to his fondness for whores.
The victim herself, largely incidental to the plot beyond her desecrating effect on the people to whom she can be connected to posthumously, is of course also a Bad Catholic dubbed “The Virgin Tramp”. True Confessions really isn’t about her so much as it is about the sins of the men in her orbit. The film warrants a second viewing if only so the opening scene can be truly appreciated with the knowledge of Monsignor Spellacy’s flaws and the depravity of Jack Amsterdam, the film’s villain. The Latin Mass, arguably Western civilization’s greatest work of art, is stunningly beautiful as performed by DeNiro’s deeply flawed Monsignor. The solemnity of the event is punctuated but not diminished by Amsterdam’s performative coughing as Msgr. Spellacy incenses the altar and quietly utters some of the most beautiful prayers contained within the old mass:
LET my prayer, O Lord, be set forth in thy sight as the incense; and let the lifting up of my hands be an evening sacrifice. Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth: and keep the door of my lips. O let not mine heart be inclined to any evil thing: let me not be occupied in ungodly works.
MAY the Lord kindle in us the fire of his love, and the flame of his everlasting charity. Amen.
I was approximately six months old when the film was released. The Latin Mass itself had been largely suppressed ten years earlier by the Second Vatican Council and replaced with a great social experiment in Liturgical Liberalism. There were undoubtedly many people who viewed the original screenings of True Confessions through a lens of nostalgia, but when I first saw it in the nineties as a teenaged and marginal Catholic, that brand of Catholicism had been relegated to the fringes for two decades and change. It was a portal into an exotic past I knew only vaguely from my grandparent’s anecdotes. It made little lasting impression upon me beyond a vague sense of awe and wonder. Flawed Monsignor Des Spellacy, taking bribes from Jack Amsterdam and portrayed by dumb-as-rocks future resistard Robert DeNiro, was a conduit for a beauty greater than himself.
It stuck with me for years and resurfaced when I attended Christmas mass on a whim in county jail and was moved to tears as a murderer sang “Ave Maria” in a shitty little cinder block chapel, the back pews full of drug dealers and tranny prostitutes conducting business. It receded again until some years later when I found myself in a Holiday Inn an hour and a half from home after getting in a fight with my wife on the phone and deciding to sleep it off rather than drive home mad and tired. I woke up the next day on a Sunday morning far from home and happened to drive by a church advertising a “Traditional Latin Mass”, newly popularized and restored by then-Pope Benedict XVI. I went in on a whim, having been prompted by my old friend Dan Thrall for a while to check it out and hoping it might take the edge off before a long drive back to an unsettled home. I went inside, staked out an inconspicuous corner of the old gothic church, and spent the next hour or so in sensory overload.
It was a solemn high mass, just like the film.
There was a choir chanting four-part polyphony, while three priests moved in sync and intoned Latin quietly, a small brigade of altar boys circling and assisting. An old pipe organ droning, incense wafting, the early morning sun playing on stained glass engraved with the names of long-dead Irish and Italian immigrants. I was at times Monsignor Des, unworthy but present, more often Jack Amsterdam coughing and squirming as I was convicted in my wickedness. An ex-con with a hangover and an angry wife waiting at home. Maybe I was more like The Virgin Tramp, the pious dead whore. I had no idea what was said and spent the entire time on my knees.
Roger Ebert, himself yet another Bad Catholic (and former altar boy like Detective Tom Spellacy), gave the film three stars despite having few kind words for the whole and seeming to enjoy only individual scenes. He particularly bemoaned the minor but crucial subplot of Des’ mentor Monsignor Seamus Fargo and incorrectly identified Tom Spellacy as the film’s emotional center. It was of course the elderly Msgr. Fargo, put out to pasture by his own student and sent to die as a humble parish priest in the desert. Des was himself redeemed only when he allowed his brother’s zeal for justice to destroy his career as a church bureaucrat. Amsterdam pays for his sins but not before managing to taint Msgr. Spellacy by proximity. Des is sentenced to spend his days in the same desert parish where his mentor went to die, and the Holy Catholic Church marches on into the future and neoliberal liturgy of the post-Vatican Two era without him.
The movie ends with Des in a dusty adobo church, a broken man tending a flock of anonymous rural poor and in sharp contrast with the opening scene’s wedding, attended by elites in the Los Angeles cathedral. He is redeemed, and in the final scene, his brother is absolved. The beauty of the sacrament is not diminished for the brokenness of the men offering or receiving it, nor the lack of ceremonial or the spare environs in which it occurs. Death creeps closer towards DeNiro and Duvall, now showing their age. The great equalizer, bringing the monsignors and cardinals and whores alike to their knees, trembling before the final judgement.
After all, in the end: Quis ut Deus? Who is truly like unto God?