…here (again?) is my proposal for THE CLOISTER. Think Duvall as the Rector, Malkovich as Tomaso, Kenneth Branagh as McManus.
The “one-strike” policy drafted by the U.S. bishops at their meeting in Dallas has become policy – all cases of sexual abuse by priests are now to be reported to the police. The police and the courts, for their part, pursue these cases with vigor, and priests begin ending up behind bars.
Once there, they are treated very poorly – even by other sex-offenders. They are at the very bottom of the prison’s social order, and more than one jailed priest ends up dead. Nobody is especially upset by this – there is a general sense of justice being served, since the offenders went unpunished for so long.
The protagonist, Father McManus, is a priest in his late-30s who has sought to “hide” in the priesthood. (As part of a class that never marries, he will never have to resolve any questions he might have about his own sexual leanings, which tend toward other men.) Though promiscuous in his youth, he has taken his vow of celibacy seriously, and has sought to remain chaste as he serves as pastor in a SoCal parish. But when a young Hispanic prostitute who has come seeking refuge offers himself in gratitude, the temptation proves too great. Of course, McManus is caught – he’s one of those people who never gets away with anything – and soon finds himself before the bishop.
The bishop informs him that because there are no outraged parents involved, and because the prostitute is not interested in pressing charges, there may be a way to avoid prison and its attendant evils: The Cloister. The Cloister is a monastery in the California desert, long abandoned by the order that built it. It is not officially inhabited – there is no power to the building, no water, no mail, nothing to place it within the grid. But the diocese still owns the land, which it quietly acquired from the original order when it disbanded.
Since the adoption of the one-strike policy, the monastery has begun to serve a new purpose: as an intra-Church correctional facility for sexually-abusive priests. The bishop, reluctant to send his charges into the prison environment, has begun sending priests there whenever he can prevail upon parents/victims to permit it. Parents/victims, while not told about The Cloister itself, are given every assurance that the offending priest will not be “shuffled” – sent to simply carry on being bad somewhere else. Rather, they will be subjected to the Church’s own form of incarceration and rehabilitation – and kept isolated from underage youth – for a minimum of five years. (If they slip back into their old ways after that, they are duly reported to the police.)
The cloister is run by a throwback – some would say medieval – rector: a Jesuit who has been allowed by his now-liberal order to go where he pleases, as long as he stays out of their hair. He is old-school, a big believer in penance, prayer and fasting, a disciplinarian who sees obedience as the first virtue for creatures under God and under him. He is a tough old bird – he seems to enjoy his repudiation of “niceness” a little too much, and he is stubborn and hot-tempered – but he is not a monster. He sincerely believes in what he is doing – attempting to get priests to master themselves so as to be better servants of God – and wills the good for those in his care.
Nor is he a hypocrite when he rages against The World, The Flesh and The Devil. He punishes his flesh in an attempt to curb his temper. He does not require the inmates to join him for 2 a.m. rosary in the chapel, but he is there every night. And when a grateful bishop sends him a bottle of good Burgundy, he hesitates only a moment before sending it to the kitchen to be used as cooking wine. (As for the inevitable charge that he preaches to sexual predators because he himself is sexually repressed, it will go unanswered here.)
The rector’s power comes from the fact that only he can determine that a priest is fit to leave The Cloister. He is served by a cadre of monks – they wear black robes, as opposed to the gray robes of the inmates – who serve as a sort of prison guard, keeping an eye on things, making sure the life of The Cloister proceeds as it should.
Naturally, his strict discipline and emphasis on striving for old-fashioned holiness make him enemies among the inmates, particularly Father Tomaso, an intelligent old priest who was the rector’s classmate at seminary. Tomaso’s faith has shriveled; he is a hardened predator who has no hope of ever leaving – he came only to avoid prison. Another priest, Father Boudreaux, is one of a group that sees celibacy as outdated and damaging, part of an overall failure of the Church to deal properly with sexual matters. They know they have sinned, but they see themselves as victims of a backwards institution. They see the rector as a symbol of everything that’s wrong with the Church today, the biggest impediment to its being a true messenger of Christ’s love. Boudreaux and his friends see themselves as banding together to become a force for change when they get out.
McManus, on the other hand, resents the rector the way a child resents the parent who disciplines him. He believes the parent is right, but he feels shame at being corrected, and so resents the one doing the correcting. He is also attracted to the rector (called ‘ the rectum’ by more than one inmate) because the rector is a forceful, confident personality who seems to know something.
One day, waiting in line for mandatory weekly confessions and late for kitchen duty, McManus notices that the line for the rector’s box is all but empty. When he asks why, his question is met with knowing chuckles. Unwilling to be cowed, he steps into the box and begins his confession, only to be interrupted by the rector, who lays out the sins of McManus’ life for him. (It is the rector’s gift to be able to read the souls of other men when they come to him in the confessional.)
The story would spend some time documenting the life of a monastery/prison functioning without any modern amenities, and illustrating the tension between ruler and ruled. A clipboard hangs next to the bus delivery platform (the bus arrives with necessities once a week); anyone who wishes to leave and face the authorities is free to sign up. The various factions would be introduced, along with the Cloister policy on sexual congress: anyone caught having sex spends a week in the caves in the surrounding desert. (“Nothing between you and God out there except your own ugly self,” comments the rector.) Basic needs are provided for, and one of the brother-guards visits regularly, but it’s still a harsh experience.
Things begin to go sour when a frail young offender – a weak man like McManus – enters the Cloister. Tomaso immediately seduces him, the two are caught, and both are sent to the caves. But the frail young man is found dead after only two days – snakebite. Tomaso seizes the opportunity to foment rebellion against the rector, whose hard policy is surely in some way to blame for the man’s death.
The rector, unnerved by the event, begins to falter, and eventually collapses at Mass. He leaves McManus – who has become something of a disciple – in charge while he is taken to the hospital to recover. Once the rector is away, the rebellion gains force. McManus resists, but eventually wavers out of fear and uncertainty. By the time the rector returns, there is open revolt: howls during the consecration at Mass, subtly defaced icons, the meat locker raided on Friday, etc. Fido, the rector’s dog, is found slaughtered. None of the rebels seem to care that the rector will never let any of them go – because plans are afoot to eliminate the rector altogether. (Church officials would have a hard time opening the investigation to the public eye, since The Cloister isn’t supposed to exist.) Again, McManus wavers, and tries to warn the rector during confession, but the rector will not acknowledge him. (He knows what is coming – he can read McManus’ sin of intent – but he is ready to let it come because he feels it will expiate for the death of the novice.)
In the end, McManus steps in to thwart the attempt on the rector’s life, draining a consecrated (and poisoned) chalice at Mass before the rector can drink it. He collapses on the altar, and the rector, after closing McManus’ eyes and saying a prayer, continues with the Mass. The scene ends with the rector staring out at the congregation and saying, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. Happy are we who are called to his supper. Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.”
Act I: Introduction to McManus, his fall and introduction to the Cloister
Act II: Introduction to the life of the Cloister, the factions, and the rector, culminating in the death of the novice.
Act III: The rebellion, McManus desertion of the rector and subsequent repentance, culminating in his death on the altar.