By EW Staff
Updated March 31, 1995 at 05:00 AM EST

”I believe very strongly that people make movies that reflect their personalities. And I have a fairly emotional, out-of-control personality at times,” says Antonia Bird, 35, an intense round Englishwoman with flyaway hair. ”My intention in Priest was to expose religious hypocrisy, to expose the deep intolerance not only in the Catholic church, but in society as a whole. The script (by Liverpool writer Jimmy McGovern) hit me in the gut-and I set out to achieve in directing the reaction I had when I read it.” Score one for Bird: So far, her controversial second film has either hit moviegoers in the gut or made them want to hit her in the gut. Priest is about a gay cleric who learns in confession that a young girl is the victim of incest, and since last fall it has been pulling audiences to their feet and winning prizes at film festivals in Edinburgh, Toronto, and Berlin. But the religious atmosphere into which this gut-wrenching film now opens is highly charged. In Britain within the last year, a gay-rights group outed 10 Anglican bishops, and a former bishop of Glasgow came out of the closet. Early this month, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Westminster preached tolerance of gay love but not gay sex. And in New York, John Cardinal O’Connor rewarded the antigay organizers of the Saint Patrick’s Day parade by serving as its grand marshal. The film’s distributors, moreover, are stirring the pot. Priest opened in Britain and Ireland on Saint Patrick’s Day and is scheduled to widen its American run on April 14-Good Friday. Here, Miramax held early screenings for clergy. When one Los Angeles participant predicted picketing of the sort that greeted The Last Temptation of Christ, another noted, ”They should be so lucky.” One Catholic priest who attended, Father Gregory Coiro, spokesperson of the L.A. archdiocese, believes the Church won’t condemn the film because ”all it would do is feed the publicity machine. It’s a serious, well-made film, which (Bird) uses as a club to express her anger at the Church.” But hotter heads may yet prevail. Bill Donohue, spokesman for the Catholic League, an antidefamation group, is outraged by the film’s ”invidious stereotype. All five priests are unredeemable and depraved. I don’t think (Miramax) would dare put out a movie called Rabbi with similar portrayals and have it released on Yom Kippur.” Whether there are protests or more accolades for Priest, Bird has no intention of letting up. Her first American movie, Mad Love, with Drew Barrymore and Chris O’Donnell as troubled lovers on the run, opens May 26. What’s it like? ”It’s an anarchic, rebellious film,” says the director defiantly. ”It’s an Antonia Bird film.”