On Bearings Online, we are running a series on the portrayal of clergy in popular media. We are interested in how faith leaders are represented in culture (movies, TV, books, plays, etc.) and how that reflects our current era and understanding of religion. The following essay by Jacob A. Jones explores the priest character in the television show The Sopranos.
When The Sopranos debuted on television on January 10, 1999, the cast was replete with classic mafia characters: burly Italian American men with thick New Jersey accents and women wearing Prada and Gucci with elaborate hairstyles and makeup and weighed down by a few extra pounds of jewelry. The plot focuses on a New Jersey mob boss making his life in contemporary suburbia, complete with a wife, two children, and a touch of psychosomatic disorder.
Another important character is Father Phil Intintola, “Father Phil,” played by Michael Santoro in the pilot and Paul Schulze for the remainder of the series. The show introduces him in the pilot attending the Sopranos’ summer cookout, a scene that also introduces Tony Soprano (the lead male character) and his relatively normal family, wife Carmela (Edie Falco), son AJ (Robert Ilo) and sassy teenage daughter Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler). Lurking behind his plate of assorted grilled meats, Father Phil completes the Catholic family get-together and his presence introduces the commonality of the priest. Father Phil’s presence legitimizes the family, including their residence within the affluent neighborhood in which they live.
Father Phil’s presence legitimizes the family.
Tony Soprano’s wit never leaves him and the family picnic is no exception. Father Phil asks him if he likes a particular food, and Tony replies, “You bless it, I’ll eat it.” While humor is part of the show’s success, it is the relationship that Tony builds with his therapist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), which directs the show’s story credibility – a mafia don who experiences anguish and guilt. Dr. Melfi, a psychotherapist, provides Tony with the sounding board he needs to relieve himself of panic attacks and a considerable amount of guilt.
While Tony processes his feelings with Dr. Melfi, Carmela begins to open her life to Father Phil. It starts in the family kitchen, with Carmela preparing a meal of pasta, which Father Phil cherishes. During their conversation, they are interrupted by a phone call from Dr. Melfi, cancelling an appointment. Here, the audience begins to witness the transformation of Father Phil’s role as friend to Carmela to his professional role and vocation as priest. Father Phil attempts to dissuade Carmela from the jealousy she feels that Dr. Melfi is a woman. He does not try to pull Carmela away from Tony, but acts as the responsible cleric and listens. Both characters display a deeper vulnerability as the scene progresses, with Carmela feeling the need to make a confession. Father Phil obliges and dons his purple stole from a pocket. Later, Father Phil completes his priestly duty by giving Carmela communion.
Carmela begins to open her life to Father Phil.
While the audience is supposed to understand a deeper and perhaps sensual meaning to the sacrament given here, Father Phil does not betray his role as celibate priest. He maintains his chaste love for Carmela, confessing of having had too much wine, and spends the night on the Soprano family couch. Carmela acknowledges his pastoral faux pas and sends him on his way the next morning. No harm, no foul. The message in this intimate scene provides the audience with an appreciation for a bit of drama from the priest. Unfortunately, for the audience hoping for a Thornbirds type relationship, it never develops, and Father Phil grows more distant from Carmela – eventually even refusing her absolution when she doesn’t repent of having committed adultery herself during a brief separation from Tony. While the audience would like to intimate a deeper relationship between Father Phil and Carmela, and Tony and Dr. Melfi, we are instead given several more seasons of the relational struggles both Carmela and Tony face in salvaging their marriage.
Carmela’s disdain for Dr. Melfi, which we later see played out in a verbal confrontation with the therapist, does not keep Tony from criticizing her attachment to Father Phil, which he declares during his first filmed panic attack in the pilot. Tony states, “How do you think I like it, with that priest in my house all the time?” Carmela sharply rebuffs this criticism, saying, “Don’t even go there. Father is a spiritual mentor – he’s helping me to be a better Catholic.” Carmela places Father Phil into the category of a pastor and spiritual director. Father Phil, despite his faults, provides the counter balance to Tony’s therapeutic relationship with Dr. Melfi.
Tony states, “How do you think I like it, with that priest in my house all the time?”
These spiritual and mental health gurus on the TV show add more than supplemental character roles, they also direct the Soprano couple into deeper introspection and, dare I say, conscience forming. When Carmela wants to leave her unfaithful and dangerous husband, she seeks the counsel of the family priest. Tony seeks help for understanding the relationship with his mother through Dr. Melfi’s therapy. Father Phil is an authentic pastor who, despite personal struggles to maintain a healthy distance in sexuality and intimate friendships, just as Dr. Melfi struggles to maintain professional boundaries with Tony, maintains his role as cleric on the job.
Father Phil’s humanity, even while dispensing helpful counsel, makes his role relevant to our understanding of the celibate priest today, and more succinctly, any cleric – wedded or not. Without a consideration of the cleric as human and fallen, the pedestal perception crumbles when a pastor makes a mistake. Father Phil demonstrates that even the best of clerics find themselves wrestling with their human nature, and perhaps this is not such a bad thing. Perhaps it is time we recognize a pastor’s desire to respond to their call with the understanding that, they too, face struggles, temptations, and even vices.