Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney has become the film world's chief reporter on the abuse of power. His first major documentary, "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room," chronicled how the business became the face of white-collar corruption. Two years later, he won his Oscar for "Taxi for the Dark Side," the story of an Afghan taxi driver tortured to death in the earliest days of the Iraq War and an indictment of the U.S.'s torture tactics.
Now, Gibney turns his camera toward the Vatican and the priest sex abuse scandal that sickened the public and tainted many's image of the powerful institution of the Catholic Church. The results, "Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God," are riveting, horrifying, revolting and heartbreaking.
It also results in perhaps the most important movie you'll watch all year.
Gibney's film focuses in on a group of four young deaf Milwaukee boys in 1972. The boys go to St. John's School for the Deaf in St. Francis and love it there. That is, until the school's charismatic and beloved priest, Father Lawrence Murphy, begins sexually abusing the young men and over 200 others who were under his protective watch at the school.
The boys – whose grown-up selves tell their story to Gibney's camera with the help of sign language and celebrity voiceovers – are confused and appalled by Murphy's actions, but they continue to happen. After all, he is a priest; they trust him, and so did all of the nuns who worked at St. John's. Eventually, however, the men realize what has happened to them and join their powerful stories together to bring down Murphy.
By that time, more stories are coming out across the globe – namely Boston and Ireland in the film – about priests committing sexual abuse and receiving no punishment from either the church or the police. Throughout the course of the film, Gibney breaks down these cases, shows the disregarded attempts to contact church authorities and the chillingly devious cover-ups that imply that "as long as it's secret, it's okay."
"Mea Maxima Culpa" is a scathing and gripping attack on a system of unquestioned power that invites abuse by doing nothing to stop it. Many priests and Church officials close to the cases, in fact, ended up promoted to higher and better positions despite their inability to act. One Irish Church official notes that he didn't stop or investigate into the continuous abuse done by convicted priest Tony Walsh because "he had so much to do." Gibney also talks to several sources throughout the film who discuss the apparent lie of priest celibacy and the self-created organizations and investigations within the church to rehabilitate and cope with abusive priests.
Meanwhile, the victims are left looking for justice and receiving little understanding from others. When a man abused by Fr. Murphy confronts the priest at his house many years later, Murphy's housekeeper keeps questioning the man's religious devotion. Their "good faith" is supposed to explain away whatever wrongdoing occurred.
It should be noted that "Mea Maxima Culpa" is not an attack on the religion itself. It's goal is not to shake one's religious ideals but to expose the grave errors made by the human institution of the Church and the serious issues that arise when absolute control is allowed to reign. The film isn't questioning one's faith in God; it's questioning one's faith in humanity when they allow power to taint their morals.
Gibney's film contains gallons of information on the scandal, but thankfully, "Mea Maxima Culpa" never feels like an information dump. It substantive, but it never allows the facts to overwhelm the haunting human tragedy that occurred. It's almost impossible not to cry when one of the abused men heartbreakingly erupts in a letter to Murphy, filled with deep-seeded pain and sadness. In the end, Gibney creates one of the year's most informative but also emotional movies of the year.
The documentarian also powerfully allows his deaf subjects to tell their story. The audience can't hear their voices, but they can feel the men's quiet rage. I originally wasn't sure about the use of the celebrity voices for the voiceover. Ethan Hawke and "Mad Men"'s John Slattery do very well, but Chris Cooper's voice is so distinct that, for a few brief moments, it was distracting. As the film goes along, however, it becomes less of a hindrance and doesn't take away anything from the men's story.
Besides that, it's a superb, impeccably made documentary, organized to a T and remarkably honest.
No matter what one's religious beliefs and affiliations may be, "Mea Maxima Culpa" demands to be seen and heard. It reaches through the screen, grabs the audience and shakes them, the effects of which can be felt long after walking of the theater. The movie doesn't ask for justice; it screams for it. By the end of the film, you'll probably be joining in.
"Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God" screens Friday, Oct. 5 at 7 p.m. at the Oriental Theatre as part of the 2012 Milwaukee Film Festival.
No Talkbacks for this article.
Post your comment/review now
Disclaimer: Please note that Facebook comments are posted through Facebook and cannot be approved, edited or declined by OnMilwaukee.com. The opinions expressed in Facebook comments do not necessarily reflect those of OnMilwaukee.com or its staff.
Recent Articles & Blogs by Matt Mueller
Published July 24, 2015
At first glance, Ellington Ratliff may seem like the odd man in the pop rock band R5. He's the only one who's not a member of the Lynch family. He's the only one with a first name that doesn't begin with R (Riker, Rocky, Ross and Rydel make up the rest), and he's the only bandmate not born and raised in Colorado. Instead, Ratliff was born out in Los Angeles and split time in Wisconsin, making the band's Riverside gig Friday night a return of sorts.
Published July 23, 2015
If the last two days have proven anything, it's that Milwaukee will freaking lose their mind over the mere idea of a lion. At least, local movie fans Stephen Milek and Christopher Kai House certainly hope that is the case, as the two film buffs attempt to bring the notoriously insane 1981 thriller/borderline snuff film "Roar" to town.
Published July 22, 2015
Bookended by AJ Bombers and Water Street Brewery, Water Street is famous for three Bs: bars, burgers and bros. The tightly packed combination of those things has made the area a popular nighttime hot spot. Yet amongst all of the bars and clubs is something unexpected: A. Werner Silversmith, a buried treasure - quite literally considering its glass cases and shelves containing shimmering, beautifully repaired silver pieces - hiding in plain sight.
Published July 20, 2015
Brooklyn-based indie band Lazyeyes guitarist and singer Jason Abrishami has never been to Milwaukee - let alone any part of the Midwest really. He admits he hasn't even heard that much about the Cream City, but he'll learn about the city firsthand Wednesday night when the band and its shoegaze-laced dream rock makes its maiden trip to the city via a gig at The Mad Planet.
Published July 19, 2015
Tarsem Singh is a man who spent about four years and much of his own money traveling the globe's most outrageously beautiful locales in order to make his magnum opus "The Fall." So how'd he end up standing behind the camera of "Self/Less," an utterly anonymous and impact-free immortality action-thriller that - much like the fresh if not quite new bodies being peddled in the film - seems "alive only in the most basic sense"?
Published July 18, 2015
What if? It's two simple words, not even adding up 10 letters, but that seemingly innocent question has likely haunted every single person that's walked this planet at some point or another. And it's a question that fascinates Milwaukee native Cynthia Swanson, so much so that she made that idea the cornerstone for her debut novel, "The Bookseller."
Published July 17, 2015
Every band has at least a small group of devoted fans cheering it on and supporting it on its way to the spotlight. The retro "nu-wop" family band The Bronx Wanderers, coming to Festa Italiana this weekend, is no different - except some of those devoted fans just happen to be entertainment icons from their hometown neighborhood, including Dion DiMucci, Tony Orlando and Oscar-nominated actors Chazz Palminteri and Danny Aiello.
Published July 15, 2015
When Festa Italiana starts up this Friday at Henry Maier Festival Park, many will flock down to the lakefront to gulp down some real authentic Italian food and wine. Yet some of the most revered tastes of Italian culture coming to town this weekend are wholly inedible: the lovingly crafted and almost identical replicas of the country's most famous sites - this year including a 50-foot duplicate of the iconic Trevi Fountain.
Published July 12, 2015
Whenever some pop cultural hallmark gets a shiny new Hollywood remake or reboot, the Internet's response is always the same, to the point that you might as well give it its own key on the keyboard: "They're destroying my childhood!" In all cases, it's complete hyperbolic fanboy spazzing - all, except for maybe the case of "Terminator: Genisys" (the silly bonus y nicely echoing my main line of thought while watching the movie).
Published July 11, 2015
Channing Tatum must've heard your laments concerning the first "Magic Mike" film and brought most of the gang back together for "Magic Mike XXL," the best possible version of the sexy, silly male stripper movie audiences thought they were getting the first time though.