Pious. In today’s vernacular, the term has come to describe those with a platitudinous zeal for religion, usually with more than a twinge of a negative connotation. The word “pious” itself however stems from the Latin “pius”, which can be roughly translated as devoted. In classical literature, it meant a devotion to three things in particular: family, friendship and finally, to faith. This original idea of duty, encompassing many facets of character, is perhaps a more accurate description of Father Francis Chisholm, a (very regrettably) forgotten figure of cinema.
The film begins in 1938, with the Father now returning to his hometown in Scotland after a lifetime of missionary work. His rather unorthodox methods raise eyebrows in the church, even prompting the Bishop to coerce him into retirement. The Monsignor is sent to inform Chisholm about this, and quite by accident, discovers the elderly priest’s journals. In it, he reads of a simple, and yet very remarkable, story; the life of Father Chisholm. Although fairly standard, this framing device is effective; we alternate between a rather reserved third person narrative and a more intimate first person perspective to get a rounded portrait of various events and characters.
Covering a period of more than 60 years, The Keys of the Kingdom is, essentially, a character study. I realise that I have mentioned the aspect of character (s) several times already within this review, but I don’t think this point can be stressed too strongly. It is in the depiction of Father Francis Chisholm, his persona, as well as the relationships and the actions this particular persona results in, that the film succeeds superbly.
The early life of the Father is marred by tragedy. As a Catholic boy in Protestant Scotland, he experiences heartbreak when his parents are inadvertently killed. Some years later, Francis is further devastated by the death of his childhood sweetheart. It is these circumstances though that not only shape his views and opinions, but eventually prompt him to join the church. After a number of unsuccessful dabbles in various churches around the country, the young Father Francis is encouraged by his mentor and friend, Bishop Hamish MacNabb, to establish a parish among the native Chinese. And it is in this foreign land, a place where Chisholm is greeted with much resentment and hardship, that his patience and good nature is truly tried.
Among Francis’ obstacles is in fact one of his own: the haughty Reverend Mother Maria-Veronica. Rose Stradner disappears completely into the role of the cool and is hostile nun, and for the most part of the film, is thoroughly insufferable. I say “for the most part” because there is this one scene, about 20 minutes to the end, in which she redeems herself almost entirely. I actually think I have never changed my mind about someone, fictional or otherwise, quite as eyebrow-raisingly quickly as I did about the Reverend Mother. To understand why I did so requires a more rigorous examination of this wonderful scene.
The episode takes place in the Father’s parish, some time after the horrendous bombings of the little Chinese town in which our characters reside. Chisholm’s church has been destroyed, and the two stand together among the ruins of what was once their modest, but very much beloved, place of worship. The Reverend Mother confesses her past resentment of Father Chisholm —she talks of her envy of his “true and honest compassion” while hers was “difficult, filled with doubt and pain”. It is in this scene that the poignant friendship of a lifetime, the special attachment between the Father and the Reverend Mother, finally begins.
Furthermore, this turning point of the movie is also memorable from a purely aesthetic point of view. Throughout the scene, Miller employs black and white cinematography with the utmost consideration and thought. Shades of grey contrast and converge, playing off each other dramatically. The closing image, in which the light of goodness in sincerity floods into the shadows, is an especially beautiful composition.
What sets this movie apart from the rest is, no doubt, its constant sensitivity. It shines through every frame of the entire film; from the portrayal of the Chinese villagers, to the soft camera styles, to the personal and spiritual relationships that run through the central tale. And at its core is the young Gregory Peck in one of his most captivating performances. As Chisholm, he is selfless and good-humoured, with a quiet dignity that the actor himself has ultimately come to epitomise.