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El sacerdote (The Priest) (1978)

Obsessed with fantasies of sex, Father Miguel seeks professional help through his church but they are not listening; thus leaving the Father in a dilemma; leaving the church or should he try, on his own, to surrender to these temptations?

Eloy de la Iglesias’s ‘70s films make Almodóvar’s ‘80s films look conservative and even more superficial. In El Sacerdote/ The Priest (Spain, 1978), the Church is depicted in the very first shot as part and parcel of the Falangist state (see below), and debates around modernising it are couched in a priest’s torment over sin and sexual abstention.

Father Miguel (Simón Andreu) believes all the things he should, in Franco’s dogma as much as the Vatican’s. He’s handsome and good, but he is going mad with sexual desire. At the confessional he listens to Irene (Esperanza Roy) and falls in love with her.

He can’t do anything about it but can’t bear for even her husband to do anything with her either. He is removed from his function as her spiritual advisor and placed teaching children but even though he is not homosexual or pedophile, his gaze at their thighs take on a sexual tinge.

He can’t have sex anywhere so sees it everywhere, wants it with anyone, but is too riven by notions of sin to find satisfaction even with prostitutes. His desires are such a torment he goes back to his village to rest but even there his memories turn to childhood, when he was a normal boy who easily satisfied his urges, amongst his friends, even with geese. Finally his desires are in such a conflict with his faith that the only solution he can find is to cut off his penis with a pair of garden shears.

At the end, the parish is left with few priests, some have married, others have gone into other lines of work, the more left-wing priests have become the most active and didactic but have moved on to more needy neighbourhoods. Father Miguel leaves the priesthood in order to put his faith in man and to find salvation now rather than in the after-life: ‘It is very difficult to be free in this country’, he tells Irene, ‘but it is a goal we must pursue above all others.’ It’s an extraordinary film, that takes full sensational advantage of Spain’s then emerging freedoms. The film revels in its sensationalist situations but sensationalism here is never just an end in itself but a vehicle for the exploration of serious ideas – Francoism, the Church, how traditional beliefs not only control society but also stunt, damage and may even drive mad the individual. An astonishing work.