Alex Gibney returns with his richest and most humane work since 2007's Taxi To The Dark Side.
American documentary director Alex Gibney has long shown a preoccupation with the path to corruption. His films exploring the inequities of big business (Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room), politics (Client 9: The Rise And Fall Of Eliot Spitzer) and the military (Taxi To The Dark Side) all share a concern with the infinitesimal steps taken towards justifying grave crimes.
It is a theme explicitly at the heart of his latest work, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence In The House Of God, an examination of the Catholic Church’s policy of denial in the face of numerous child abuse scandals and its subsequent path of defending itself at the cost of its own values.
Typically, Gibney uses an affecting and personal story as a way to relate to the film’s broader concerns. In the place of Enron’s Cliff Baxter or Taxi To The Dark Side’s Dilawar, here we have Terry Kohut, Gary Smith, Arthur Budzinksi and Bob Bolger.
Abused while attending St John’s School for the Deaf in Milwaukee, their 1970s campaign to defrock Catholic priest Lawrence Murphy was the first of its kind. It is their testimonies that provide Gibney with a route into a larger examination of institutional denial directed straight at the upper echelons of the Vatican.
A monolithic, ultra-secretive organisation, the Vatican has of course long proven a perfect fit for conspiracy-thriller narratives. It is a structure gladly utilised by Gibney and longtime editing partner Sloane Klevin who, mirroring their previous work together, use factual revelations as the key to unlocking new, shady corridors of power.
With reminders of the Vatican’s hierarchy designed to keep viewers’ minds fixed on how much further up the ladder the conspiracy might reach, it proves an exquisitely controlled, gripping journey through known history.
Gibney, though, offers more than just twists and turns here. A careful dissection of a warped, paranoid mindset, he cleverly distinguishes between members and institutions, between believers and their Church. It’s an approach that allows Mea Maxima Culpa to delve deep without ever patronising its subjects or pandering to a secular audience.
In the process, it reduces the Vatican’s wacky plans for an island for pedophile priests – as well as the shocking accusations of anti-Catholicism leveled at abuse victims – to the level of tragic farce.
Gibney’s most successful and rich work since Taxi To The Dark Side, Mea Maxima Culpa ultimately proves most successful in the way it balances public scandal with a tribute to human frailty and heroism. Like Taxi – in which a murdered taxi driver and Gibney’s own father provide a personal dimension to a grueling exposé – Gibney gives his film emotional life through affecting human subjects, and it is to them that he returns in his film’s final stages.
The lost innocence of four middle-aged men, most powerfully expressed in an unbearably moving confession from Terry, helps Mea Maxima Culpa become a kind of cinematic riposte to a long history of abuse, championing as it does a dignity that others would seek to deny.
Gibney punches out films fast, but they're always worth a look.
Challenging, inquisitive and sensitive to a tee.
Considering the current Papal-mayhem, this is more newsworthy than ever.