Lads boarding in a Catholic boys' school are lorded over by a priest, Father Goddard, an aloof figure of erudition & rigidity & a touch of gloom. Richard Burton is the priest in Absolution (1978), giving certain lads long looks, especially Benji Stanfield (Dominic Guard), his favorite, while being distant to the majority of the lads & outright abusive to one, Arthur Dyson (Dai Bradley), the school dufus with thick glasses & in a leg brace gimping around getting picked on.
In the woods near the school a scruffy Scottish rover has set up a camp. Blakey (Billy Connolly) is a motorcyclist more or less en route to Liverpool with a girl, Louella (Sharon Duce). But he takes his time journeying. Having found a pleasant tame woodland area for his camp, he's in no hurry to move on.
He makes what small living he requires breaking into houses. While the school lads put on a comic opera by Gilbert & Sullivan (with geeky Dyson in drag), Blakey breaks into the kitchen. The school boys deplore this occasionally drunken camper, except for Benji, who befriends him.
Blakey & Louella haven't listened to Benji long when it becomes obvious to them the priest fancies the lad. Benji, already tired of being the headmaster's pet, is easily talked into the "practical joke" of making false confessions of licentious acts out in the woods with both Blakey & Louella.
This indeed tweaks with Father Goddard's emotional life. He sends the police to beat the living daylights out of Blakey. His threats against Blakey are motivated more from jealousy than any desire to protect the boys from such influence.
Benji becomes increasingly a temptation to Father Goddard, who fools himself into believing Benji is a weed among wheat, a plantling of the devil's doing, while regarding himself as faultless for his own feelings & behaviors.
Burton, by the way, gladly admitted that he never filmed a role sober, unless he had to play a drunk. He has a sweaty off-kilter creepiness in this performance that suggests the Father might've been getting into communion wine. Whether this is the result of good acting or of Burton's actual drunkenness, who can say, but it certainly works for this character.
When the next Benji wants to give a "special" confession, the priest caves into his own demons, & is lasciviously eager to hear what adventures may have lately transpired. But he learn insteads that Benji has killed Blakey, not exactly the thrilling confession he'd hoped for.
The priest checked the alleged grave, finding only a jack-o-lantern. He now realizes Benji has been violating the sacredness of the confessional, making up sins. When confronted, Benji's self-recrimination makes him seem nearly sociopathic. His influence on lonely Dyson, who follows him about hoping for attention, begins to look diabolical, & Father Goddard is more & more convinced Benji is evil incarnate.
Eventually the priest discovers via the confessional that Benji really has after all murdered. But being bound by the seal of the confessional, Goddard can tell no one. He knows he is being manipulated by the horrific youth. As his grasp on reality becomes more tenuous, the idea that such evil must be destroyed creeps into Father Goddard's mind.
With deep & fervid commitment, he tries to save Benji's soul. But Benji's depth of evil seems already completely that of Satan, & there may be nothing short of murder can stop his rule on earth. When Benji confesses a plan to murder the pesky Arthur Dyson, Goddard finds himself in the position of having to protect the very lad he most dislikes.
Dyson soonafter vanishes, & a cat & mouse game with Benji heightens. Within the closed protection of the confessional, Benji readily admits what he has done with devilish delight. Outside the confessional, he maintains that he is guiltless.
The shocking, shocking conclusion of this very odd psychological thriller goes far beyond the horror I'd expected, but I should not spoil the surprise, saying only that everything the priest has perceived was filtered though his own aberrance, & he in fact hasn't a clue what is going on until his own soul is lost.
The 1978 film waited until 1988 to be released in America, without fanfare. It is a true sleeper, unjustly neglected but in every regard an excellent film of its type.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl