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'Gospel According to Vic'

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 27, 1987


Charles Gormley
Tom Conti;
Helen Mirren;
David Hayman;
Brian Pettifer;
Jennifer Black
Children under 13 should be accompanied by a parent

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WE SURE COULD use a miracle in these days of uncontrollable cockroaches from Florida and viruses from hell. And "Gospel According to Vic," a comedy of marvels great and small, proves a timely answer to a moviegoer's prayers.

This lilting tale of the supernatural pits religion against reason in a Scotland scenario modeled on such gentle Bill Forsyth comedies as "Local Hero" and "Gregory's Girl." This is an equally sweet-natured and idiosyncratic work, written and directed by former Forsyth associate Charles Gormley. His style is derivative, but his scriptwriting is inspired.

Tom Conti is a beguiling Vic Mathews, who teaches a remedial class at the Blessed Edith Semple School, an establishment bent on winning sainthood for its namesake. (Semple died in 1917 with only one miracle to her credit and the Vatican requires three for canonization.) Cynical Vic is amused by the Blessed Edith backers -- until he is unwittingly recruited, by a higher power, to champion the cause.

There's always room for doubt in this delightfully quirky screenplay, with its grumbling atheists and gosh-almighty faithful. Gormley needs no special effects to create his aura of heavenly intervention, relying instead on ambiguous incidents and secondhand testimony.

Like the woman who saw Jesus in her taco, Vic encounters something bigger than himself when he prays for "just a little miracle" and his broken hi-fi begins to play -- but it's not plugged in. Unfortunately, he's soused at the time and dismisses the incident. But after Vic plunges 40 feet off a roof and is unharmed, the media hail him as a miracle worker, attributing his students' remarkable progress to the woman upstairs, good old Edith.

Helen Mirren, as the curvy music teacher Ruth, believes Vic when he reasons away his divinity, saying a tree broke his fall and he's just a good teacher. Indeed he is a Scottish Mr. Kotter, a welcome wiseguy in a classroom of raucous Glaswegian misfits. But Ruth is like most people -- torn between logic and the urge to knock on wood.

"Somebody up there likes me," she says after a near-collision with an oncoming van.

"Maybe he likes the man in the van," says Vic, who routinely runs red lights to test his charmed life. As couples go, this pair exudes a cozy, careworn sensuality, despite little makeup and lots of tweedy teacher clothes.

Conti, with his perfect timing and rumpled magnetism -- like a basset hound with a facelift -- again makes us commiserate with curmudgeons. He landed an Oscar nomination for his self-pitying poet in "Reuben, Reuben," and likewise develops a sympathetic but obstreperous Vic.

Mirren, last cast as the mythic mom of "Mosquito Coast," adds a dash of wily, willful femininity to this all-male leading cast. And Brian Pettifer gives an appealing comic performance as the round-faced padre, Father Cobb, the Blessed Edith's chief cheerleader.

Gormley, who creates a pleasant rapport among his players, once had a psychic relationship (he says) with his stereo. That and a struggle to canonize a real-life Scottish luminary provide the subtext for this abiding comedy, a fantasy that keeps the faith. GOSPEL ACCORDING TO VIC (PG-13) -- At the MacArthur.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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