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As you can see by my profile on this site, one of my favourite actors of all time is Robert De Niro. Why you ask? Bluntly, his performances are intense and inventive, engaging and extravert. Over the years he has played many famous characters, such as Travis Bickle from Scorsese’s 1976 acclaimed hit, Taxi Driver.

So even though I knew nothing about the quality of the film, nor the quality of the DVD, I decided to take the plunge with his 1981 film: True Confessions. So how did I find it? Was De Niro the only good point? Or was he bad for once? Or, shock horror, were all the elements of the film good? Read on to find out…

The Film
Desmond Spellacy (De Niro), a rising star in the church hierarchy, has more of a talent for fund-raising than saving souls. When his brother Tom (Duvall), a hardened LA cop, investigates the murder of a prostitute, he discovers one of the church's prime benefactors is involved.

True Confessions

Religion is a touchy subject, especially in today’s day and age. Centuries ago religious viewpoints were battled over with swords and shields, bloodshed rising by the decade until we reached the peak of barbarity and then descended into a more comfortable civilisation of today: albeit a civilisation filled with political correctness and red tape so voluminous that we seem to drown amidst bureaucracy with every step we make. Yes, nowadays we battle over viewpoints with pens and paper, and protests from every corner of the globe. The nice, yet very frustrating, way to do it seems…

So this film may have generated a small bit of controversy when it was released back in the beginning of the ‘80s due to its subject matter. Especially since the light must have been firmly focused on it, featuring actors De Niro and Duvall, who have been dubbed many a time as “two of the best American actors of their generation”. But, I’m a sucker for controversy - enjoying seeing how society nowadays ticks by dissecting any item that may be singled out for being slightly daring, yet completely true.

With a premise of murder set amongst the haven that is the modern-day Church, it certainly sounds appealing. Beginning with a parish starkly set against the vast emptiness of the desert, Tom Spellacy pulls up and greets his brother, Desmond, the priest there. His brother then proceeds to tell Tom how he is dying - cue slow zoom into the desert as we cut back to the ‘40s, where Desmond is a more healthy and active priest; and his brother is in the middle of a messy homicide investigation involving a dead hooker.

True Confessions

From then on the social customs and lifestyles of America are exposed as a raw wound, with many shenanigans going on (such as amateur porn caught up in the prostitute ring). De Niro’s performance as Desmond Spellacy is another solid one from the veteran, as he reveals a side that isn’t the usual paternal Church figure, someone who perhaps engages in too many publicity stunts than old-fashioned redemption exercises. Equally, Duvall - an actor who I haven’t actually seen a lot of (John Q believe it or not is the only other film I can actually remember seeing him in!) - delivers a character in LA cop Tom Spellacy who seems to be disgruntled with the world, dealing with situations and others with a passive brush of the hand.

The film is actually adapted from John Gregory Dunne’s novel, and he also serves on screenwriting duties along with a co-writer. I have never come across the novel before, nor heard how good/bad it was, but the adaptation seems to have been a success as characterisation - something that is the main real feature of a novel - has been transferred very well, even though the narrative isn’t exactly electric.

And there is my only real gripe with True Confessions. The narrative plods along slowly, with no real developments: the murder seems to be sidelined, with the relationship between the two brothers the main focus. Now, because of the calibre of the acting and Ulu Grosbard’s fairly accomplished direction (the various church sequences, which probably sound boring as hell - excuse the pun - on paper, are actually beautifully captured and do indeed add to the atmosphere of the film), it ticks along well enough to secure the content rating I awarded; but perhaps a little more thought about how the film would work on screen instead of paper (due to its book origins) may have turned this from a good flick to a very good flick. Nevertheless, worth watching.

True Confessions

Even though this was shot in the ‘80s, the 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen print looks fine, with only the odd sign of damage. The damage mainly comes in the form of loss of clarity and definition - the transfer doesn’t have the best sharpness level, so some scenes look a bit blurred. But, there are no compression signs evident, and only the very odd bit of dust and grain, so overall a good transition to the digital age for True Confessions.

Being an MGM back catalogue title, the soundtrack is diverse in the choice of languages, yet lacking in channel configuration: Dolby Digital Mono (English, French, German, Spanish & Italian) is all that is provided. And as you may have guessed, it ain’t that great - the single track allows for little distinction between dialogue and any heightened action, meaning the soundstage lacks ambience and definition. Although the audio produced may be fairly clear, DVD aficionados just do not accept this sort of standard in this day and age. Sort it out, MGM.

The only extra on offer is a measly theatrical trailer, in which the title is splashed across every other frame it seems, as if once wasn’t enough. In fact, this trailer sucks - failing to market the film well at all, and instead focusing solely on the star power of De Niro, and to a lesser extent, Duvall.

The menus are static, but easy to navigate.

True Confessions

I enjoyed the 104 minutes of the film, a length I feel is not too long, nor not too short either as there are issues with the amount of action contained within the running time…and therefore just how attention-grabbing the film is. Good performances however are the main attraction, and coupled with a fairly intriguing - yet not too engaging - story, this is worth one watch at least.

So, when you combine a film that only warrants one - or maybe two - viewings; the strength of the disc itself must be very, very strong to make a purchase worthwhile. Well, to put it bluntly, that is most definitely not the case. Just above-average video, below-average audio and almost non-existent extras (a trailer: forgive me for not jumping up in joy) equal a ‘leave it on the shelf’ package.

If there are no new releases to tempt you when you’re stuck in Blockbuster with nothing else that appeals, give this a whirl. But, expect to be only moderately entertained with the film, but also prepare to be very annoyed with the lacklustre DVD the film is presented on.