I’ve always felt that there are two ways in which a film can make you angry. The more common of the two involves anger directed at the film – at missed opportunities, or lazy work represented therein. The second, and by far more powerful of the two, is when the film manages to impart a message that makes you angry on a human and emotional level – when it manages to tangibly convey an injustice so well that you cannot help feeling outraged. Alex Gibney’s Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God represents the latter.
The film begins on a very intimate scale. We are introduced to four deaf men, all former students at St. John’s School for the Deaf, in Wisconsin. In a smart stylistic choice, Gibney decides to present these men’s silent interviews with voice over from the likes of John Slattery, Chris Cooper and Jamey Sheridan. The contrast between the expressive sign language and the sombre, sad tone of the actors’ vocalisation thereof, make their testimonies all the more heartbreaking.
Gradually, their very local story of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of Father Lawrence Murphy becomes something much larger and more ominous. The church’s unyielding silence on the matter leads to the discovery that this is in fact not an isolated event. The story expands further and further, encompassing child abuse scandals across the globe, until, finally, we arrive in 2011. In the course thereof we learn of shocking, systematic, decade long abuse… forcibly kept a secret by the Vatican.
Although this section is perhaps – in terms of application to our modern society – the most important and shocking part of the story, it is also the weakest part of the film. We have, at this point, completely lost contact to what were ostensibly our four protagonists. Granted, there is a clear thematic link between them and the larger picture: they were the first men to defy the church, even in light of almost certain ostracisation and ridicule. The film makes the perfectly valid argument that it is only through their actions that this whole nightmare was gradually uncovered. The problem is that these stories don’t necessarily feel linked anymore: there are large sections of the film in which we seem to have drifted from a small, intimate story to a larger, conspiratorial one.
However, it has to be said that – despite this flaw – the revelations and scandals uncovered in this grander section of the film are of such shocking nature, that they do manage to hold your attention… and inspire anger at the absurd injustices so many have suffered at the egoistic hands of the of the catholic church.
In the end, Gibney does manage to tie this narrative back into that of our earlier protagonists. It is a welcome return to more intimate, emotional storytelling – and it manages to once again anchor the film in a human story. Now, within the larger context of this injustice as a whole, their struggle becomes all the more powerful. Perhaps most impressively, the film manages to take away the anger it had instilled in you and replace it… with compassion. Perhaps the church could learn a thing or two.
Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God opens 15/02/13
Find details for a preview at the Curzon Soho below.
Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the house of God / Q&A with Alex Gibney