Gospel According to Vic tells a small story about a time-honored theme: that favorite teacher who succeeds simply by believing that his students are human beings, capable of learning if you find the right way to reach them. This teacher is usually at odds with the establishment—i.e. school administration—should be more than a little eccentric and more than enough inspiration to ralley his students at the end to go on to great things. Think of Dead Poets Society, Take the Lead, Dangerous Minds, Stand and Deliver, The Substitute, Class of 1984...
Now forget those movies because Gospel According to Vic isn’t like any of those movies. It’s far more subtler in both theme and storytelling and, if I might be so bold as to say it, better for all of that. It also stars the tragically-underrated Tom Conti as well as a young Helen Mirren, and those two things can only bring harmony to the universe.
Beginning in the Vatican, a young priest named Father Cobb (ubiquitous you-know-him-when-you-see-him actor, Brian Pettifer) is petitioning for the canonization of the Blessed Edith Semple, for whom his Scottish parochial school is named. While a nice old woman, she’s considered illegitimate for sainthood because her only vague miracle was performed in WWI. ''One nice little miracle - and then off,'' says the Vatican Mouthpiece. Everyone knows you need to perform three miracles to be considered a saint. Besides, the church has been downplaying the whole “miracle” thing since The Exorcist and penicillin. Disappointed but nonetheless resolved, Father Cobb returns to the school and leads a prayer service in the Blessed Edith’s honor, including in his invocation little Alice McKenzie, who is crippled.
Now we meet Vic Mathews, the irreverant non-believer who teaches remedial kids and is locked in an ongoing fight to keep one of his students, Stevie Dean, from being shuffled off to a “special school” due to his learning disabilities and disinterest in participation. In fact, most of his students require a specific touch to respond—one child has trouble reading and must follow along to Vic’s recordings of texts (“Turn the page, Robbie. I said turn the page, Robbie,” instructs one particular recording.), another can barely write his name and there are more than a few with emotional problems to boot. But Vic keeps them all engaged and motivated. When the class goes off-topic, he goes with them. When asked which language is “the hardest” to learn, Vic uses a comparative technique and has the class blurting out the names of different languages, and when Stevie Dean only half-listening pipes up with “Harley Davidson”, Vic continues in this vein, prompting the class in the direction of vehicle manufacturers. And running out of answers himself, he allows Stevie to win.
He’s also a champion of the childhood spirit. When, Ruth arrives, the new and very fetching music teacher, she catches a boy masturbating in her class. Vic is quick to defend the poor kid. “Look, there’s no problem,” Vic explains, and with a wink to Ruth. “I’ll just have a talk with him and instruct him to do it in private like the rest of us.”
“Do I look out of place?” he asks Ruth later, putting fingers up to his temples as horns. “Can you tell I’m a non-believer.”
One day after a visit to his sadistic dentist, Vic is waiting for a bus when he suddenly faints. The doctors send him home and once he’s gone, discuss among themselves the significance of the shadow on his x-ray crowning the top of skull. It won’t likely give him much time to live and since they’ve already sent him home, they decide there’s no point in telling him. That night, in an attempt to work his record player, he mumbles sarcastically to himself, “What we need here is a very minor miracle.” Suddenly, despite its not being plugged in, the player starts.
In the morning, he has a breakthrough with Stevie, teaching percentages by using the verbiage of off-track betting. Stevie grasps the idea of betting and returns in percentages immediately and, for once, not only participates but begins to explain the matter to the other students. However, Vic’s triumph is upstaged by the news that little Alice Mac has begun to walk again. In the evening, while trying to make friends with Ruth, he gets quite drunk, makes a series of inappropriate jokes about Alice’s mother setting up the whole miracle display, and manages to faint just before an offended “Wee Man in Pub” (as Jake D’Arcy is credited) socks him out. Ruth drives him home and, still giddy, he stomps on her gas pedal. They manage to make it all the way down the road without hitting a single red light.
“I feel I can help,” he tells her, referring to his students. “I feel I can help just by touching.”
Suddenly, the devout believer Ruth is in the curious position of trying to keep grounded the non-theist Vic. He’s discovering new ways to encourage his students to succeed every day and starts to believe that, perhaps, he is gifted. During a parent conference, Vic discovers that one of his boys is trapped on a high roof. Leaping from one roof to the other to save him, both the boy and Vic fall four stories and survive—the boy maintaining a few fractures and Vic lands with barely a scratch. Even better, his x-rays return minus the ominous shadow. Discussing this with Father Cobb who off-handedly calls the event a miracle, the doctor replies “Are you telling me that a man falls forty feet and only bangs himself up enough to cure his incurable cancer? Could set the whole of medical science back to the Dark Ages! You don’t need hospital, just miracles!”
Newspaper reports of “Miracle Teacher” set Vic’s teeth on edge and makes things worse for the school. The Headmaster quietly moves Stevie Dean to the special school of his and almost immediately removes another student from his charge for accidentally speaking to a reporter. Vic doesn’t care for this and doesn’t care for the extra attention he’s receiving from Father Cobb, going so far as to confront him during Holy Communion “I don’t want your prayers. You want to pray for someone, pray for the boy in the hospital. You’re not going to make a miracle man out of me!”
It would seem that Vic’s sudden survival is causing him a reverse crisis of faith. He’s invested so much in being an atheist that he doesn’t want to believe in miracles, but as a practical man he’s finding it difficult to shrug off everything as co-incidence. So begins his tightrope walk between glory and ego. “It wasn’t the Blessed Edith that got Steavie Deans off the hook,” he tells his union rep and friend, Jeff Jeffires. “It was me, and I’m no miracle man. I’m a teacher.”
The conclusions he, Ruth, the headmaster, Father Cobb, et al, come to are—atypical for the movies—far from Earth-shattering in any sense of the term. In this world of Scottish quiet eccentric desperation, acceptance is just as miraculous as surviving a fall, which is to say, not very—or, to look at it from another angle, very. Who is really to say what a miracle is or isn’t? The Vatican can’t be bothered, Father Cobb looks for anything because of his love for the school’s namesake, while Vic and Ruth want nothing to do with the blasted things. Proof of God, Ruth explains casually, is in the ordinary.
Gospel According to Vic leaves the viewer not with halleluiahs but with simple affirmation that good people exist, even if they are at odds with what your personal beliefs are. The Headmaster (Dave Anderson) doesn’t have Stevie removed out of animosity towards Stevie or Vic, just actual concern for the boy’s well-being, bureaucratic as it might seem. Vic’s disbelief is not at odds with Ruth’s faith, nor Cobb’s devout calling. More than anything, the characters in Gospel According to Vic do little to antagonize each other as they just want to get through the day seeing one or more of their insular group in a crisis. Tom Conti may raise his voice both in and out of class, but this is very much a quiet movie, with “little” things to say. And ultimately, it says a lot. But ike Stevie and Robbie and the others in Vic’s class, don’t expect to be given the answers.
It’s no coincidence that writer/director Charles Gormley’s movie brings to mind the gentle humanist quality of the comedies of fellow Scot Bill Forsyth. The latter gentleman behind such understated movies as Gregory’s Girl and Local Hero was and is a good friend to Gormley, and his staunch belief in human nature seems to have rubbed off on Vic’s director. Gormley’s every touch from script to screen has been light, guiding rather than nudging. No better proof of this can be found than in both Conti’s and Mirren’s performances. As Vic, Conti embodies the nice-guy-smart-ass teacher in the most likable way possible. And his Vic isn’t disdainful of those of faith, but is playful with the concepts. As he and Ruth get romantic on a desk in a newspaper morgue, Vic asks, “If there are saints watching us, do you think they’ll be able to see us okay with the lights off? Wouldn’t want to spoil their fun.”
Now for the inevitable tragedy of Gospel According to Vic: except for a stripped down Region 2 DVD, there’s been no home video release since its original VHS. It didn’t even play on HBO for long in the ‘80s, whereas Gregory’s Girl could be counted on to pop up every other month or so. And that should bring a tear to film lovers because you don’t come across a movie like this that often. At the risk of being precious, stumbling over a Gospel According to Vic can be a miracle in and of itself.
[By the way, the name “Blessed Edith Semple” led me on a snipe hunt to draw some parallel to famous radio evangelist and reported faith healer, Sister Aimee Semple, who I first heard mentioned in Jim Carroll’s song “Catholic Boy”, off the album of the same name. I’ve come to the conclusion, given the sparce details on “Blessed Edith” and the vast amount of information given Sister Aimee, that Gormley just liked the name.]