Actor-writer Matt Dellapina excavates the religious roots of his new film, The Woods are Real, which premieres Friday at the LES Film Festival.

I was seven years old the first time I stepped into a confession booth. At the time, I attended a public elementary school in the Bronx. But every Wednesday, a few other Catholic kids at P.S. 83 and I would be siphoned out after lunch to the local parochial school for CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine – yikes). So each week at around 1 p.m., we public school urchins in our gym-sweat jeans would wedge ourselves into the uniformed, nun-laden hallways of St. Clare’s School. Once there, we’d be treated to fortifying lessons on why Jesus died for us (because we were fundamentally idiots) and why we had to pray the rosary (because repetition puts you into a trance so you can hear God. I guess.).

On one particular Wednesday, however, Sister Stabile marched us into the school’s attached church for Communion preparation. Communion is that thing where Catholics get to eat the body of Jesus, in the form of a wafer drier than sand. But first, to properly receive this gift, a person must be temporarily cleansed of sin. So in second grade, Catholic kids are introduced to confession. More specifically, kids are introduced to a large wooden booth the size of an upturned coffin where they must willingly enter and tell an unseen priest all the bad things they’ve ever done. Once emptied of your sins and temporarily perfect, you are now free to eat the body of Jesus for the rest of your life.

A young Matt Dellapina channels Mets hero Ron Darling.

All strange and ancient and Catholic and unfair, probably.

The only hitch was, I liked it.

In the pre-therapy days of youth, where else could you get a sounding board to absorb your worst secrets? Inside the confession booth, behind the black dividing scrim set between myself and the priest, I was virtually anonymous. The priest couldn’t see my face. I didn’t have to share my name. I could even alter my voice. It was only the walls of this confidential box that ever heard some of my harshest admissions: how I called a girl a “dogface,” how I screamed “motherfucker” 45 times while biking down a friend’s driveway, how I stole twenty bucks from my mom’s purse to pay a girl (not the dogface) so she’d let me kiss her shoulder, how I found and then buried my teacher’s holiday homework assignment, how I abused myself after watching a steamy Bon Jovi music video starring Carla Gugino.

These were not high crimes, to be fair. But in a Roman Catholic neighborhood – where every mother had the down-low wish that her son would end up a priest – even a slight infraction under the unblinking eye of God could send me into a panic of damnation.

Matt Dellapina at his First Communion.

In The Woods are Real, the feature film I co-wrote with Sean Lewis, I play a well-moneyed and self-satisfied do-gooder husband (to the wonderful Chinasa Ogbuagu) put through a brutal spiritual test. Directed by Alix Lambert, it is in some ways a confession booth brought to cinematic life. The lead characters are each descendants of captains of the industrial age, when power was asserted by brute force, through maxing out of human labor. Pre-digital, blood-on-the-hands capitalism.

To distance themselves from the roots of their privilege, the lead characters, Joba and Quincy, establish well-meaning foundations, march for every just cause, sell shares of their stock to seed green tech startups – all well-intentioned gestures toward restoring social fairness. But as the film unwinds, an old friend (Nick Westrate) fiercely challenges the genuineness of these efforts. We begin to realize that Joba and Quincy’s benevolence comes at no true cost to them. Their foundations are mere percentage points of the interest earned from their trust funds. Their protest marches are simply a two-hour novelty slot scheduled into their iCal. And deeper than that, when fortune has smiled on you and your history so favorably, what does it really cost you to be a good person? And if it doesn’t cost you anything – if you’re not really giving of yourself and shedding enough money, blood or life that it starts to hurt a bit – can you really call it “goodness”? Must goodness come from a kind of sacrifice? Or at least an admission of sin?

As Sean and I were writing the script, these questions really started vibrating. They brought us both back to one of the Bible stories we remembered from our school days. Namely, the Book of Job. As a quick refresher (or intro), Job was a prosperous man who believed in the goodness and bounty of God. But in an effort to test this piety, Satan shows up to put Job’s life through the wringer. (These Old Testament stories go right for the meat.) In quick succession, Job loses his wealth, his children and finally his own health. As the climax of Job’s spiritual torture arrives, will he too lose his faith?

Fun stuff.

Campbell Scott, Chinasa Ogbuagu and Matt Dellapina during the making of The Woods are Real.

In our modern spin of this parable, a host of characters (including a particularly roughened-up Campbell Scott) engage our protagonists to unfold themselves. To confront their basest instincts. To confess their worst. To sacrifice the unimaginable. Joba and Quincy reluctantly begin to accept that only by shedding a pound of flesh can they hope to find a way toward salvation. It’s pretty easy to bask in the glory of God when you have it all. But a far tougher thing when all you’ve got left is the skin on your back.

The film seems to exist in a zeitgeist of recent movies, novels and TV shows now questioning the chasms between classes – perhaps a post-pandemic crisis point aimed at restoring some justice as to who gets to be Blessed and who is Damned. This dynamic never felt more at play than as a confession-obsessed child, where each week before Communion became an obsessive tabulation of all the shitty things that would damn me before I could vomit them out in the booth and be blessed again.

Matt Dellapina and Chinasa Ogbuagu in The Woods are Real.

Now, as a fairly agnostic adult, I find myself longing for the simplicity of that dynamic. Since everywhere I look today, I see curation, not confession. In the grasping-at-golden-straws realm of show business, in the only-the-good-news scroll of social media, and in the suburban life I’ve found myself thrust in, the glaze of perfection feels in full effect. But emitting a veneer of perfection gives the world nothing. Perfection doesn’t exist. Even the purest of us have sinned. Goodness, however, has flaws. Goodness examines itself. Goodness admits it will never be Perfect.

So, to reset…

Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It’s been 30 years since my last confession … This last week, I spoke ill of a friend who wasn’t there to defend himself. I let my temper flare again in front of my son. I rushed through my work too often, and should take more care.

Matt Dellapina co-wrote and stars in the new feature The Woods are Real, which has its world premiere at the Lower East Side Film Festival on May 5. Matt created and starred in Adult Ed., an original series that premiered at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival and with his longtime producing partner, Sean Lewis, co-wrote and starred in These Hopeless Savages, a feature film now streaming on Tubi and Amazon. His plays have been produced & developed by Slant Theatre Project, Naked Angels, The Lark, Ars Nova, and Crowded Outlet. In front of the camera, Matt’s recent TV and film roles include The Big Door Prize, Kevin Can F Himself, Bull, The Iliza Shlesinger Sketch Show, The Blacklist and NCIS: New Orleans.