Wednesday, October 16, 2013

FI: Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God

Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God
US, 2012
Written and directed by Alex Gibney

There are some stories that, frankly, will captivate you regardless of the quality of their telling. This isn't a slight against Alex Gibney's work on Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God. It's just that the sickening, awful story of deaf children being taken advantage of and abused by a predatory priest would make for gut-wrenching stuff, even if he had filmed it with a camcorder. That Gibney makes some fantastic choices in writing and directing his documentary of this harrowing ordeal really feels like a bonus. The story in question is about four men (Gary Smith, Terry Kohut, Arthur Budzinksi and Pat Kuehn) who attended St. John's School for the Deaf in the '50s and '60s, where they were sexually abused by Father Lawrence Murphy. The film documents their decades-long struggle to get their case (described as the first public accusation of priest sex abuse) heard and receive some form of justice, as well as the resistance put up by the church at almost every step of the way.

Gibney chooses to let the men speak for themselves via ASL, shooting their interviews with lighting and staging that highlights the men's hands and expressive faces. Then, he uses an actor's voice (Jamey Sheridan, Chris Cooper, John Slattery, and Ethan Hawke) to speak each man's words as translated into English. This allows us to see the men, feel their emotions, and hear their plight—something their condition and the machinations of Father Murphy had denied them for so many years. Gibney also makes use of recreations that show some of the situations these men and their fellow students faced, a tactic that some have found over-the-top, but which didn't bother me. And, as ever in documentaries, Gibney and editor Sloane Kevin combine extant footage, photographs, and even a video journal from Bob Bolger, a late classmate, to create a compelling, thoroughly damning narrative. This all works as intended; even if there's nothing groundbreaking in the way all of this information is conveyed, it is conveyed effectively and with the appropriate tone.

But where Mea Maxima Culpa really stands out is by employing some of the more damning proof out there about the Vatican's complicity in these crimes. Gibney connects this to the church's self-regard, its power structure, and its status as a world (and, indeed, a sovereign state) apart. He covers stories from Ireland, Italy, and more in painting a thorough picture of the willingness of the Holy See—and our previous two popes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the latter of whom was directly in charge of all evidence regarding clerical sex crimes—to ignore, cover up, and blame the victim in almost all cases. Even when the effectiveness of the specific people involved isn't black and white—for all his faults, Benedict XVI comes across as a conflicted figure, while the beloved John Paul II seems both out of the loop and fatally compromised—Gibney's research shows a more systematic failure that's beyond any one man's control. And, ultimately, what makes this film special is its ability to give a voice to the voiceless and ground an overwhelming crisis in a specific, exceedingly atrocious case study. If the purpose of a film is to create an emotional response in its audience, Mea Maxima Culpa does that in spades.

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