To Kill a Priest (1988)




Director:     Agnieszka Holland.

Cast:     Christopher Lambert (Father Alek), Ed Harris (Stefan), Joss Ackland (Colonel), Tim Roth (Feliks), Timothy Spall (Igor), Pete Postlethwaite (Josef), Cherie Lunghi (Halina), Joanne Whalley (Anna), David Suchet (Bishop), Charlie Condou (Mirek), Tom Radcliffe (Young Soldier), Wojciech Pszoniak (Bridge Player), Johnny Allen, George Birt, Andr Chaumeau.

Catholic priest Jerzy Popieluszko allies himself with the Polish Solidarity movement


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire movie. 

1981.  The year of Solidarity, a free popular movement against the Communist government in Poland.  It carried the hopes of millions of Poles.  The growth of Solidarity was so overwhelming that people felt that nothing could ever stand in its path. 

1981 (Dec 28).  Warsaw.  Automatic weapons fire is heard.  A man runs through the street shouting:  "Help!  They're after Solidarity!"  The authorities are arresting Solidarity people.  Someone jumps out of a window, probably the fleeing man.  In the streets is heard the shout of "Murderers!"  To prevent a riot starting, tanks are brought onto the streets.  Then the riot police arrive.  Halina, on her way home with a Christmas tree on top of her car, is stopped and pushed around by the police.  A top man in the secret police named Stefan tells a policeman to take him home.  At home Stefan finds his wife sleeping with a crowbar.  She is afraid of the Solidarity people.  She thinks they might want to kill her and her family. 

In a boxing ring, a man new to boxing boxes like a young girl  -- more of a slapping motion than hitting.  Even with an older man as a sparring partner, the fellow knocks down the inexperienced one.  Stefan is watching this pitiful exhibition.    The sparring ends and the terrible boxer puts his clothes back on.  He turns out to be a priest.  His name is Father Alek.  He tells the others that he just boxed in order to experience what being hit feels like.  Later Stefan tells the Colonel that the churches would be targeted. 

Father Alek shows why the churches will be targeted by the secret police.  He preaches that "A government by brute force is not a government."  He talks about how silence is forced upon the people.  Stefan is in the audience.  There is a moment of silence.  The congregation holds up two fingers making a V-sign.  Outside the church a truck with lots of video equipment tapes the priest's speech.  The authorities feel that the priests are inciting thousands to rebellion.  Stefan tells the Colonel that Father Alek is a dangerous man; very charismatic; people will follow him. 

The upper hierarchy for the Polish church is not as enthused about the struggle as is Father Alek.  His superior tells him:  "You have no right to put the whole parish in danger."  Word arrives that the authorities have come for Father Alek.  The church men want to know where they are taking him, but they do not get an answer.  The priest is blind-folded and taken to his apartment building.  Outside a dog barks and barks at Stefan.  

Stefan comes home.  His wife was so upset that she went to find him.  The son tells dad that he was waiting for him.  Stefan tells him that he will get him a dog.  The wife comes in.  She thinks Stefan has been cheating on her.  He smiles and then laughs.  He's much too busy to to have an affair.  The wife says:  "I'm terrified they're going to kill you.  Can't you do something?"  Something like kill them.  She tells her husband that they have not had sex since this whole Solidarity mess started. 

Stefan gets the floor plans for the church and the apartment building where the priest lives.  He goes over them with his men.  Stefan says:  "I want to nail that son of a bitch."   One of his partners, named Feliks, had previously worked to found a Solidarity movement in the militia.  Therefore, some of the secret policemen do not trust him.  But Stefan decides to plant Feliks in the priest's inner circle to keep an eye on the priest and call in his every move.  Feliks presents himself to the priest who willingly takes him in.

Pretty Anna, the wife of the priest's brief sparring partner, is in love with the priest.  She talks with him and tells him that he is too saintly.  The priest leaves.

Stefan speaks with the Colonel to tell him that Feliks deserted the previous night.  This gives the police the excuse to pick up both Feliks and the priest.   The priest learns he could receive 15 years at hard labor:  five years for assisting a deserter; five year for possessing religious and Solidarity propaganda; and five years for having a firearm.  Father Alek says that the police planted the propaganda and the firearm.  Father Alek is taken to the police station, but he is soon let go.  The Episcopate called the police about the priest.  They also informed the police that there will be a general amnesty announced in a couple of weeks anyway.  The Colonel tells Stefan:  "We'll get him another time."

Back with the people, the priest is given a hero's reception.  But he soon is called in by the bishop, who tells him that the church has to play ball with the state.  Father Alek responds by saying:  "God's will is to help my people."  The bishops tells him:  "This work you've undertaken is unbalancing you."  The priest asks the bishop if that is the compromise that he has agreed to.   The bishop tells him that he could send the priest to a small rural parish.  To sum up, the message to the priest was not to make any more political speeches. 

Anna follows Father Alek and finds him crying.  He is very upset about being restricted by the bishop. 

When Stefan arrives at home, he is told that Pope is dead.  Stefan can't believe that the Pope is actually dead.  No, their dog Pope that they got for their son is dead.  They must have poisoned him says mother.   The son is very upset and asks his father" "Why does no one want to play or talk with me?  Why?"  He then answers his own question:  "It's because of you."  This makes the father angry with his son.  He then goes with his son to bury the dog.  The son insists on putting a cross on the grave, even though this upsets Stefan, who is a hardened communist.  Back home, Stefan greets his parents who have come to celebrate his birthday.  He learns from his wife that some kids have been drawing gallows on their front door.  This in turn upsets Stefan.  He is so disgusted and angry that he takes the birthday cake and throws it on the floor.  Hen then goes to another room.  The wife cries and starts smashing things.  The parents try to reassure her, but she tells them that:  "He hasn't been my husband for a long time."

Stefan goes over to the priest's apartment building and throws a rock through the apartment window.  The dog keeps barking at him.  He forces the dog into his car, but the dog still won't stop barking.  So when the dog puts his head out the window, he cranks the window up so the dog's neck is caught.  The dog start screeching so much, that Stefan rolls down the window and lets the dog out of his car. 

Stefan goes into the Colonel to tell him he is resigning.  The Colonel protests  "But I just promoted you."  He also tells that Stefan they have a plan.  Then the Colonel tells him:  "If the priest leaves the city, don't follow him."  Later the Colonel tells him that he will not accept his resignation. 

Stefan comes back to the Colonel saying that "We need action."  The big shots approve Stefan taking some unspecified action.  He is told he can handle the priest anyway he wants.  Stefan goes back to his colleagues and tells them that they have clearance.

Anna drops off the priest.  He thanks her for the ride and she asks him to kiss her.  Just once. He replies:  "I'm not that strong."  He hugs her but she tells him:  "I don't want compassion."  She leaves. 

For reasons unknown, Stefan decides to call the priest and use a fake voice.  He tells him not to go to a certain city.  "They're out to get you.  Don't try to be a hero.  Don't go."  He hangs up.  Father Alek thinks about what he was told. 

Stefan and his two partners travel to the city.  Stefan seems to be having trouble with his conscience.  Much to his dismay, he finds the priest there.  A crowd throws the priest up and down to thank him for all he has done for the Solidarity movement.  When the sparring partner and Father Alek drive toward home, Stefan and company trail them until the priest tells his driver to stop.   Stefan has the priest get out of the car, tells him that he had warned him, beats him and then puts him in the trunk of the unmarked police car, while his partners rough up the driver.  But when their attentions are diverted, the driver is able to run away and escape.  

They drive the priest to a deserted area by a lake with a entertainment place of some kind on the other side.  They open the trunk and the priest makes a brake for it.  But they soon catch him by the lake.  This time they really give him a bad beating.  The priest screams and tells them to stop, but they just keep hitting him.  He is soon a bloody mess.  They put him back in the trunk of the car. 

Father Alek's driver is able to get the word out that the priest has been kidnapped.  A policeman at a checkpoint stops Stefan's car.  They are looking for a kidnapped priest.  The men act very normal and calm and the policeman sends them on their way.  The car stops by a dam.  The priest is tied with ropes.  They take him over to the edge of the water, put a plastic bag over his head and throw him into the water.  One of his partners, the heavier one, seems very disturbed and keeps repeating in a low voice:  "It wasn't supposed to be like this." 

Stefan returns home.  He is drunk.  In this condition he has sex with his wife, who is extremely pleased by this.  She tells him:  "I thought you didn't love me anymore."

The Colonel speaks with Stefan.  He wants to know where the priest is.  "Floating somewhere" say Stefan.  The Colonel explodes with "Shit! Shit! Shit!"  He adds:  "We want Father Alek!" 

Father Alex's father and mother are surrounded by reporters.  They want to know all about their son and where he is at present.  They don't know much. 

The Colonel speaks with Stefan again. He says:  "You are really making my day."  He then asks Stefan, why does the voice on a tape of a man warning the priest sound so much like his voice.  Stefan denies he warned the priest.  In Stefan's presence, the Colonel takes a phone call.  Stefan hears him say that yes he understands:  "The guilty must be found and punished."   When the Colonel hangs up he tells Stefan that there is a witness.  "It's better if I never see you again."  Stefan spits in his face and leaves. 

The Colonel, Stefan and Stefan's two partners are all arrested.  At Stefan's home, mom tells her son that they have to leave immediately.   The son says:  "Dad killed that priest, didn't he?"  She slaps him, but then almost immediately apologizes. 

They found the body.  A ceremony for Father Alek takes place.  His sparring partner tells the attendees that Father Alek was a saint and "We have to fight."  Anna tries to comfort her husband, but he tells her:  "I should have stayed with him."

Stefan has received 25 years in prison.  The judge speaks to him in private to let the man have his say.  Stefan justifies himself and his actions saying it was his professional obligation.  He deludes himself by saying: "I'm a normal man."  But then he adds defiantly that he would do it all over again if necessary.  The higher ups decide to have a public trial for the public.  The big shots think that they can turn the murder to their advantage.

Jerzy Popieluszko was murdered by the Polish Secret Police, October 17, 1984. 


Good movie.  My wife liked it too.  There hangs over almost every scene a foreboding about what might happen to the politically outspoken Father Alek.   This keeps the tension going all the time.  Christopher Lambert as Father Alek and Ed Harris as Stefan were great. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.



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