To Kill a Priest is a fictionalized account of the 1984 martyrdom of Solidarity chaplain Jerzy Popieluszko by Poland’s secret police. It demands comparison with the recent video release Romero, an admirable but flawed film about a similar murder of a priest in El Salvador.
To Kill a Priest is the better work of art. Director Agnieszka Holland has the insight to focus less on the martyr (movingly played by Christopher Lambert, the Jean-Paul Belmondo look-alike of Greystoke) and more on the assassin (Ed Harris), a good Communist cop unwillingly drawn to the triumphantly reformist Polish Church. The ever-intense Harris skillfully conveys the conflicts in the policeman’s heart. He’s supposed to embody the civil war that swirls around him, but Harris’ performance transcends the script’s pat symbolism.
To Kill a Priest lacks the headlong energy of a great political film such as Z, and the cinematography is too dim at points to translate well to video. Still, Holland manages the invaluable feat of giving a human face to that cold abstraction, political evil. B