To the Editor:
In his superb article on True Confessions [“Our Lady of Corruption,” December 1981], Richard Grenier overlooks two factors which, I think, add yet another layer of meaning to that exceptional movie.
First, it is too much to say simply that Detective Tom Spellacy caused his brother’s downfall (and therefore his redemption). As the film develops, it becomes increasingly clear that Monsignor Desmond Spellacy is unsatisfied with his position, and uneasy with his duties as the Cardinal’s hatchet-man. At the dramatic peak of his involvement—when he pronounces the words of absolution for the obviously unrepentant Jack Amsterdam, violating the sacrament in order to extricate himself from an unpleasant situation—Robert De Niro clearly conveys the image of a man disgusted with himself. The audience cannot be sure whether, in the absence of the ensuing scandal, Monsignor Spellacy would not have removed himself from the heady world of Church politics out of pure healthy piety. In any case, this much is clear: Monsignor Spellacy’s redemption occurs when he begins acting more like a parish priest and less like a political wheeler-dealer. In an age given to clerical activism, this is no small step toward orthodoxy.
Second, it is equally clear that Detective Tom Spellacy is driven not only by his hostilities toward his brother, and his attachment to the brothel madam, but also by a personal animus against Jack Amsterdam. . . . Couldn’t this be interpreted as Tom’s effort to cope with his own corruption, by wreaking vengeance on the man who was the instrumental cause of that corruption?
Incidentally, True Confessions presents no evidence to suggest that Tom Spellacy is still “on the take.” Quite the contrary, he pointedly refuses to become involved with his partner’s payoff system. Apparently he too has reformed. But unlike his brother, he never resolves his abiding sense of guilt. Here is the most authentically Catholic message of the movie: for those humble enough to seek her mercy, the Church provides an abundance of spiritual reserves.
Philip F. Lawler
The Heritage Foundation