Brow Beat

Forgive Me, Father

Fleabag wasn’t the first to recognize the erotic potential of clerical romance.

Andrew Scott in Fleabag and Edward Norton in Keeping the Faith.
Hot priests Andrew Scott and Edward Norton.
Photos by Amazon Prime Video and Buena Vista Pictures.

Has any TV character taken over the discourse this year quite like Fleabag’s hot priest? As we approach the seventh week of adulations, interviews, and GIF compilations lauding Andrew Scott’s character from Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s beloved comedy series, it appears that Fleabag has awakened a desperate cultural thirst for romantic heroes who have taken a vow of chastity. Sure, the writing and acting on Fleabag are superb, but the appeal of Fleabag Season 2 is more primal: The Amazon show takes advantage of the fact that the Catholic prohibition on priest sex is perhaps the only taboo strong enough to inject real erotic excitement into the will-they-or-won’t-they premise of every romantic comedy.

Amid all the righteous lust, I feel compelled to point out that Fleabag’s hot priest isn’t the first handsome on-screen priest this century to consider ditching his robes for the woman he loves. As I watched and rewatched Fleabag, I couldn’t stop thinking about the first love story to satisfy my personal thirst for clerical romance: Edward Norton’s 2000 film Keeping the Faith, in which Norton himself plays the sexy priest. Keeping the Faith is Norton’s only directing credit—at least until his adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn arrives later this year—and it’s also the only romantic comedy I’m aware of in which a Catholic priest and a rabbi fall in love with the same woman.

Keeping the Faith didn’t make much of a splash when it landed in theaters—according to Box Office Mojo, it earned a middling $37 million in North America, just behind Autumn in New York, the Elizabeth Hurley remake of Bedazzled, and The Tigger Movie the same year. But that didn’t stop me from adoring Keeping the Faith as a seventh-grader, so much so that I made its poster the centerpiece of my bedroom wall. And, as I discovered by rewatching it recently, it’s mostly held up: It doesn’t smash quite as many taboos, but Keeping the Faith is a worthy spiritual prequel to Fleabag, another ambitious exploration of faith and attraction that will make a fine antidote for anyone currently suffering from hot-priest withdrawal. (It’s available to rent or buy on most streaming platforms.)

Before I continue, a bit of housekeeping is in order: Yes, the priest played by Andrew Scott is hot, despite many wrongheaded viewers’ assertions to the contrary. The priest played by Edward Norton is also hot. No, neither of these actors would likely find work as a male model, though you must admit that if you knew either in real life, you would consider him one of your hot friends. Their hotness has as much to do with their vibes as with their physicality. In Scott’s case, it’s the reckless way he teases Fleabag with his knowledge of how much she wants him. Norton’s priest has more of a nerdy boy-next-door thing going on, with the small crucifix necklace he wears making him look like the most squeaky-clean member of a late ’90s boy band. Both have alarmingly sexy smiles that transform their otherwise solemn faces like a providential ray of sun breaking through a cloudy sky. If you wouldn’t gladly help either of these men violate their vow of abstinence, I’m not sure you’d recognize hot if it ordered you to kneel in a confessional.

The similarities between Scott’s priest and Norton’s priest don’t end with their hotness. Keeping the Faith’s Father Brian Finn is another “cool priest,” to use Fleabag’s term. He trash-talks opponents during pickup basketball games, offers nonjudgmental advice to horny pubescent boys who come in for confession (in fluent Spanish, no less), and wears tiny sunglasses. Where Scott’s priest displays his corny sense of humor in pun-laden restaurant reviews, Norton’s priest prides himself on standup-comedy-style sermons. Both priests also have a disconcerting, exhilarating propensity to hit the bottle when their commitment to their vows starts to crumble. Norton (and writer Stuart Blumberg) present Father Brian as a distinctive individual without minimizing his commitment to his faith—sound like any TV shows you know?

Where Keeping the Faith diverges from Fleabag is in how far it goes in sullying Father Brian’s vow of chastity. (Some spoilers follow.) After Brian and Rabbi Jake Schram (Ben Stiller) reconnect with their childhood friend Anna (Jenna Elfman), Jake and Anna quickly begin to date—in secret, since she’s not Jewish and he’s, well, a rabbi. Brian, meanwhile, also develops feelings for Anna. He gazes deeply into her eyes as she makes cryptic pronouncements about noticing things she never noticed before and asks him questions about celibacy that he interprets as a sign of a mutual attraction; he goes on to have erotic dreams about her. (Are you beginning to see why I felt a connection with Father Brian in middle school? The language of sexual frustration is universal.) Brian does kiss Anna, in a scene that has aged poorly—he repeatedly lunges at her as she squirms away in shock—but this hot priest doesn’t fuck. Anna wants the hot rabbi instead, which is a much more practical, albeit much less titillating, choice.

Just because Father Brian technically keeps his vows doesn’t mean Keeping the Faith doesn’t grapple sincerely with the agonizing struggle of wanting someone you shouldn’t.
When Father Brian tells his mentor, an older priest played by Milos Forman, that he was prepared to give everything up for Anna, the older priest shrugs and replies, “I’ve been a priest over 40 years, and I fell in love at least once every decade.” He tells Father Brian about a woman he fell in love with in Prague in 1968, a Carole Lombard lookalike whom he flirted with and kissed in the alley behind his church. “I was so happy I thought I would die,” he says. But it wasn’t meant to be. “Soon after, the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia, and I moved to the United States,” he says. It’s a good reminder for libidinous clergymen and the rest of us: Sometimes you fall in love with inappropriate people, but if you let it, life usually has a way of saving you from your worst impulses. Or, as Fleabag’s hot priest says, “It’ll pass.”

Unlike Fleabag’s new season, Keeping the Faith isn’t perfect. There’s some humor rooted in racist stereotypes and some JAP jokes that haven’t stood the test of time, and the extent to which Father Brian goes off the deep end after Anna rejects his advances may interfere with some viewers’ appreciation of his hotness. But Keeping the Faith is a solidly crafted romantic comedy, and more important for Fleabag fans, it’s a chance to watch a young Edward Norton, in a clerical collar, being torn apart by unrequited lust for two hours. To that, I say: God bless.