This Minnesota-made film touches the heart and soul.
Father John Buerlein's confessional duty in his shabby Minneapolis parish is mundane. He generally listens to the litany of petty misdemeanors with one ear while working a crossword puzzle. But one afternoon he's approached by a woman seeking absolution for a sin she hasn't committed yet.
"I'm going to kill myself. On my birthday. And I'm Aries, Father, so I don't have a lot of time."
"Into Temptation" is a haunting, carefully crafted movie about a woman with mile-wide rips in her soul and the flawed priest who aims to save her. Minneapolitan Patrick Coyle's screenplay is trim and efficient, his directing simple and matter-of-fact. The story doesn't need embellishment. The characters -- a young woman with a deep psychological need for a father figure, a young priest questioning his vocation -- are solid.
This is one of very few American films to deal with religious beliefs about faith and salvation with empathy and insight. The confidentiality of all statements made during confession prevents the priest from contacting the authorities. If he violates the seal of confession, he would be subject to excommunication. If he does nothing, a life and a soul will be lost.
Uncertain what to do, he seeks the counsel of a fellow priest (the effortlessly charming Brian Baumgartner, a fixture on Twin Cities stages before co-starring on "The Office"). "Do not cross that line," his colleague warns. "And when you do, just please be discret."
Father John's sense of moral responsibility leads him to amateur detective work in the city's porn district. (It takes some doing to make Minnesota's wholesome urban center look nasty, but Coyle cobbles together a sexual underworld of seedy bookstores, garish storefronts and lurid neon.) This, too, is a world of tightly protected secrets; no one is able or willing to offer much help. As time runs out, finding the would-be suicide becomes his obsession. Word of the priest's nocturnal prowling reaches his superiors and before the film is over, both his faith and his flesh take a beating.
Jeremy Sisto (of TV's "Law & Order") plays Father John in a strong, understated performance that ranges from lightly humorous to deeply touching. He's a modern, flawed man of the church, flexible enough to serve a flock that needs guidance beyond official dogma. He recommends that a mother-to-be struggling over what religious upbringing she should offer her child should "take what works" from church teachings. That cafeteria-style approach to theology would get his ears boxed by many clergy. It's clear the priest is questioning his duty to his church and its dwindling congregation. When an old flame appears, newly divorced and proclaiming that she never loved anyone but John, you sense his deep ambivalence.
Kristin Chenoweth is in good form as the world-weary woman, whose character and heart-rending motivations are sensitively observed. She is a concoction of high heels, plunging necklines and short skirts, a fabricated identity that can't be traced. Men can't help looking at her, but don't see her. She already doesn't exist; she just wants to make it official.
Unless a miracle happens, she'll make good on her plan, but Coyle is too honest to offer an automatic resolution of the plot. He's more concerned with the human and ethical themes he's introduced than with forcing the story to a "satisfactory" resolution. Instead he gives us an appropriate one. "Into Temptation" touches the heart without playing on the audience's heartstrings.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186