Monday, February 4, 2013

Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God

Famed documentarian Alex Gibney's latest expression of cinematic outrage comes in Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, a film given a blink-and-you've-missed-it theatrical release, revived for the greater good by HBO Films.  The film was one of the fifteen documentaries shortlisted for the Best Documentary Feature Academy Award, but ultimately wasn't nominated.  Business that matters not for the film-- an avid and thoroughly researched document of the vastly investigated sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church.  It also matters not that the film itself is far from perfect from an artistic perspective- it rambles in its narrative from time to time, blares a slightly overbearing score and stumbles in a few slimy reenactments-- the subject is powerfully wrought, sensitively handled and emphatically emotional.  While many films have covered similar terrain, and all bring out much the same sense of rage and grief, Gibney brings a worthy entry to the canon, not because he brings about the most artful presentation, but because he summons the battle cries without hints of sensationalism.  And like in his best films, like the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side, which explored the use of torture on the part of the United States through the prism of an Afghan cab driver, or Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, which deconstructed how the powerful corporation corroded, or Casino Jack & the United States of Money or Client 9: The Rise & Fall of Eliot Spitzer, which chronicled both sides of our economic collapse, Gibney remains a totem of American muckraking and to-the-point showmanship.

Mea Maxima Culpa works on two tracks, bridging the mighty powers of the church, onward through the mightiest at the Vatican to the very intimate and wrenching singular stories of a particular parish in Wisconsin.  What sets Gibney's apart, which at first feels a bit like a cheap gimmick until it nearly stabs the heart, and that the brave group of people at the center, the same who were once ordinary children whose innocence were forever upended are deaf.  Under the tutelage of one Father Lawrence Murphy, a priest who taught at St. Johns School for the Deaf.  The heart and soul of the feature are the living victims, who continue to struggle to go on with their lives, who are delicately and thoughtfully presented by Gibney to tell their stories and how they continue to fight, over a decade after the death of Murphy, to have them heard.  There's a tangible and heartfelt outrage as the grown men sign and reveal the abuse they experienced, as well as a poignancy that they demand to have their voices heard.  Of course this is but a small story woven into the larger tapestry of the worldwide claims of sexual abuse throughout the Catholic Church, all of which are enshrined with an even bigger and more dense code of silence.  While the repugnance of stories like these are palpable and achingly vivid, the larger question not just in this case, but the vast many more of its like reported, and the who-knows-what cases unreported, is how can this keep continuing to surface.  And how is that no one, or nearly not enough parties, are ever punished.

Gibney goes to great lengths to explore the laws and ethics, as well as the culture of the Church.  To be fair, a lot of this will likely not be read as anything particularly new.  The startling charge of Mea Maxima Culpa is the more recently explored indictment that the Vatican itself is astutely aware of sexual abuse in all forms in all parts of the world, and has been in the loop for decades-- even way before many countries ever slowly started unraveling about abuse from priests.  Further more, the official stance is continued silence and measured distance-- pay off the victims and publicly plea for the abusers.  The raw power of Mea Maxima Culpa is in documenting the plight of a sacred few-- notably a man who once worshiped Father Lawrence still in shambles but who continues to fight for his story to be heard, and the protection of children.  This fight is something that's occurred for decades-- beginning with mostly ignored pleas as children, brave acts of leafleting their community with Father Murphy wanted signs, and a price nugget where a deaf victim as an adult confronts an elderly Murphy at his cabin as he confesses his crimes while simultaneously shooing him away.  That jewel was captured on videotape, and yet Father Murphy was granted the right to die in peace with his priesthood in tact.

The hopefulness in Mea Maxima Culpa comes not just in the victims stories themselves, and their brave forthrightness to continue to share them, but also in several key allies, both inside and out of the church, who will share their knowledge not just in films, but also fight on the behalf of Catholic vow of silence.  They include priests, archbishops, lawyers and journalists.  The film gently and powerfully reminds that the church comes from the people and not from the state of the Vatican, a nice refrain for believers and non and something that the hierarchical powers that be, who have continued for decades to do nothing, should adhere.  B

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