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Priest's Film Tackles Insensitivity To Aids

March 20, 1987|MIKE GRANBERRY | Times Staff Writer

CORONADO — Monsignor John Portman is troubled by AIDS. He's troubled not so much by the need for "safe sex," which is the focus of much attention, but by the devastation and havoc that AIDS wreaks on families.

Because he is a priest, families are a huge part of Portman's life. He said he doesn't personally know an AIDS victim, or a member of a victim's family, but he felt strongly about making a statement anyway.

Portman, 55, described by friends as a caring, committed priest, is monsignor at Sacred Heart Catholic Church here. He is also an accomplished writer, having done more than a dozen short stories that sometimes weave their way into inspirational sermons and lectures at the church.

One of those is now a movie.

"My Son, My Son," just released by the Los Angeles-based Franciscan Communications, deals with the suffering of AIDS victims and their families.

"The movie is really not about AIDS," Portman said. "It's about a father and son and their relationship. I see it as a movie about love." Or the lack of it at a critical time.

Portman wrote the story, and at the urging of a friend, mailed it to Franciscan Communications, the media wing of the Californian order of Franciscan friars. The order mailed back an enthusiastic acceptance, insisting on paying him, even though his wish was to "donate" the story.

Karl Holtsnider, producer of "My Son, My Son" and executive vice president of the company, said from Los Angeles that the "overwhelming focus" of safe sex in the media fueled his reasons for wanting to film Portman's story.

"We wanted to do something from a totally different perspective," Holtsnider said. "We wanted to deal with human relationships, families, fathers and sons. Unfortunately, we've discovered in our work with schools that even among children from, say, the sixth to eighth grade, there's almost a belittling kind of attitude for anyone with a gay orientation.

"No matter what your thought about someone being gay, prejudice and hatred are not Christian attitudes. We wanted to talk about human attitudes, reconciliation and the need for love. John's story does that in an exemplary way."

The film is done with Hollywood actors in the lead roles. The most familiar is Michael Fairman, who plays the part of a father trying to console another father suffering the loss of his son to AIDS. Fairman was most recently seen as a judge on the hit TV show "L.A. Law." Ray Stricklyn, playing the grieving father, is a veteran of both Broadway and Hollywood.

Some parishioners and friends of Portman's think he's taking a risk by committing himself to such a project. The position of the Roman Catholic Church toward homosexuals is clear and unyielding. In the eyes of the church, homosexuality, said Father Daniel Dillabough, judicial vicar of the San Diego Diocese, is immoral. However, Dillabough has seen Portman's film and, in the manner of a Siskel or Ebert, recommends it with two thumbs up.

"It's a highly controversial and emotional subject," Dillabough said, "but there's nothing objectionable in the film, by innuendo or fact. It's consistent with the church's teaching. It calls for understanding and compassion for all people. The church's position toward homosexuality remains one of understanding and compassion for the person--without condoning homosexual activity."

A gentle, self-effacing man, Portman said controversy was the last thing he intended--and the last thing he expects. He doesn't see the film as being the least bit risky or daring, much less provocative. He only hopes that families come away from it with a deeper, keener understanding of the effects that abandonment has on the victims of AIDS.

"The stance of the church must always be the stance of Christ," Portman said. "He's the compassionate one, the understanding one. Christ exemplifies love to the utmost."

In the film, which runs 14 minutes and is targeted mainly for schools and church groups, as well as AIDS crisis centers, one father tells another some devastating news. His son has told him he's homosexual, and, in the next breath, that he's dying of AIDS. The father and son never reconcile, and death intervenes. The sympathetic father--the one who's listening--later hears that his own son is homosexual. He handles it as best he can, aided by the father whose son has died.

Portman came to write the story partly because he doesn't feel that television or the movies have addressed the problem honestly. As with Vietnam and Hollywood's treatment of the war until very recently, he feels that the industry has come up short on the AIDS issue. He also took issue with "An Early Frost," the NBC miniseries that dealt with a family's reaction to a son having AIDS. He found it insensitive.

"I tried to put myself in their position--that of the victim," Portman said. "What if I were gay and had AIDS, how would I want my family to react? How would I expect them to react?"

He fears that otherwise well-meaning families often come to their senses too late--after the loved one has died, and guilt can't be resisted.

Portman has received a great response to the film. A friend of his, a priest, showed the film at a recent funeral of an AIDS victim. He called its impact devastating, saying no one moved or talked for several seconds afterward.

Portman showed it to 25 Air Force chaplains with much the same reaction.

"The next day they said they didn't know what to say--they overwhelmed me by saying it was really powerful," Portman said. "That made me happy. That's what I want it to be. I only pray it does some good."

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