Documentary guru Alex Gibney gives us an very direct insight to the tragic and infuriating world of Catholic priest abuse.
Often when reviewing I write with a fairly sarcastic tone, mostly to amuse me and in the hope that the two of you who read my ramblings might find it entertaining. With a film such as Mea Maxima Culpa, it would seem churlish. I’m sure I won’t be able to resist now and then so let’s see how it goes.
The documentary focuses on four men who attended St. John’s School for the Deaf as boys. Whilst there they were molested by the school’s head teacher who is also a priest. Discussing what happened to them and the steps they took to gain justice the film begins to unravel and display the mass cover ups that go on within the Catholic church to hide these criminals.
On first hearing about Mea Maxima Culpa I wondered about the need for another film investigating abuse in the Catholic church. Over the past two decades it seems we can’t go a handful of months without another horror story of young, vulnerable people being subjected to crimes that would satan weep. Many of these stories have been told to use through feature films, mostly investigative documentaries. It’s hard to disagree with their existence. It’s also hard to watch them. The prospect of seeing another film about priest paedophilia was not one I relished.
Fortunately Alex Gibney is a man who knows the right angles from which to approach a story, he has also brought us some of the most high profile documentary releases of the last ten years; Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Taxi to the Dark Side and We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks. He is incredibly prolific for documentarian but you never feel he is short changing his subjects. With Mea Maxima Culpa he goes so far as to literally give a voice to the four men recounting their stories of abuse. With each man telling his life through sign language, their voices are provided by actors Chris Cooper, John Slattery, Ethan Hawke and Jamey Sheridan. Their line readings add some weight to the stories being conveyed, but it could be argued that essentially “dramatising” these mens words brings the film into borderline ‘docu-drama’. The first half of the film concentrates on the young men as they attempt to tell their neighbourhood about the priest who abused them. As it becomes apparent that they are hitting dead ends the film begins to focus more intently in the Vaticans systematic cover ups and under-the-rug sweeping of criminal priest. It’s here that the film changes from an devastating personal confessional to a political and sociological study of why pedophiles seem to be so prevalent in the cloth. Academics, theologians and journalists make up the majority of talking heads. All seem to be in agreement. Yes, abusing children is bad. These priests are bad. They should be prosecuted. Sick as it may sound I would have like to have seen some deranged souls attempt to defend the actions if only to see what a real cretin looks like.
Despite it being common knowledge that Pope Benedict XVI, whilst still going by the handle Cardinal Ratzinger, was the chief investigator/cover-up-man of alleged abuses within the church. Gibney seems to take delight in detailing the comfortable lives Ratzinger arranged for Priests. We also get to see a rare moment of anger as the future-Pope is blind-sided by a journalist.
The film’s figurative and emotional climax comes when two of the former students of St. John’s track down the Priest who abused them. Living in a lovely situated home in the country the men film themselves as they attempt to confront their former tormentor. The situation manages to dumbfound and infuriate. Which is main emotions you may take away from Mea Maxima Culpa. But after an hour and half of head shaking and fist clenching Gibney allows hope to creep in as we see how the men have progressed with their lives and continue their fight to seek justice against those who wronged them and so many others.
Hopefully some people who believe that this is not a major issue within the Catholic church will see this film and begin to have a good think about their views. There’s a good chance it could happen but also a good chance that this will be merely be preaching to converted. People who are angered by this subject and will continue to be angered until men who hold more power than they should decide to do something good with it and make the moral choices they should find so easy to make.
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