Saturday, November 17, 2012


In his new documentary, Alex Gibney, the prolific director of some 27 documentaries and the man who took on ENRON, torture in Iraq, Freakonomics, Jack Abramoff, Eliot Spitzer and Wall Street now turns his attention to The Catholic Church. The results, as shown via MEA MAXIMA CULPA: SILENCE IN THE HOUSE OF GOD, are properly staggering. One of the many things that distinguishes Mr. Gibney's work is that the filmmaker (shown below) goes after the big boys rather than the ever-expendable foot soldiers doing the bidding of the man (or men) upstairs. His latest documentary is no exception. There have been several other excellent, earlier, pedophile exposés (among them films by Amy Berg and Kirby Dick) but I believe this latest casts the widest net and probes deepest.

Rather than simply concentrating on a single priest -- the Reverend and pedophile Lawrence Murphy, who, while he was "serving" at St. John's School for the Deaf in Milwaukee, abused more than 200 children over a 24-year period -- Gibney only begins here. By the time his film ends, he'll have gone upwards in the hierarchy of The Catholic Church in Wisconsin, the USA, and finally Rome, coming to rest upon the Vatican's current Pope Benedict XVI, proving to my mind (and I suspect most who see this film) that the current Pope knew -- for years! -- of Father Murphy's transgressions and those of many other pedophile priests and determined to keep them secret, thus protecting those priests, their supperiors and of course the Church itself. Papal infallibility? My ass.

Don't worry. The filmmaker never gets as grossly intemperate as I just did. Instead, he lays out his tale quietly and methodically but, since the details are so shocking and unpleasant, there is no chance to anyone growing bored with the film -- which concentrates on several of Murphy's young victims, both then and now, some 40 years later. (That's the Reverend and one of his victims, shown above.) Gibney details everything from how and when the abuses took place to the ways in which the children tried to get word out about what was happening. Murphy smartly chose those kids who parents did not "sign" and so could not be easily informed by their children of what was going on. When the children are finally able to reach the eyes and heart of a substitute priest while Murphy is away, this man tries to alert the authorities, but -- surprise! -- nothing happens.

As young men, the group creates flyers to distribute throughout the community (like the one shown at right). Still there is no change to the status quo. In the Vatican, as the Mafia, the rule of Omertà (silence) is all-powerful. So Gibney digs. Into records, and then interviews with priests, higher-ups, the kids and journalists, he probes. More garbage is unearthed. Along the way Gibney stages his reenactments quietly, using shadow and subtlety, so that we get the sense of what happened without the obvious and mostly unnecessary actors-playing-parts scenes that ruined the recent documentary, Orchestra of Exiles.

The movie does travel back and forth to different time frames frequently, and I wonder if some of the information presented could have been organized differently so that it flowed a bit more easily. I would imagine that this is the most difficult part of putting together a documentary: organizing the reams of information into an intelligible, organic whole that leads us inexorably toward our conclusion. Gibney, despite an occasional gaudy visual (see photo below) gets it mostly right, and by his movie's end, we understand that The Catholic Church -- in these, as I would imagine all cases in which the deeds of that church collide with the best interests of its parishioners -- will always win out. Even and especially when those parishioners are children, the most vulnerable of them all.

Mea Maxima Culpa..., a presentation of HBO Documentary Films and running 107 minutes, opened yesterday, Friday, November 16, in New York at Film Forum and will play a two-week run. Mr Gibney will appear in person tonight, Saturday, at the 7:50 screening. Note: the daily 5:40 screening offers English subtitles for the hearing impaired.

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