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 Aug. 27, 2015
Growing up, the Bay View-based toy maker Peggy Brown has plenty of memories of the classic board game Operation - and her family didn't even own it. Decades later, Brown - along with her friend and fellow toy maker Tim Walsh - are trying to give something back to the man whose legendarily buzz-worthy game gave them so many fun times and fond memories over the years with the documentary "Buzz Heard 'Round the World."
Published Aug. 27, 2015
Considering its reputation as Milwaukee's haunted bar, Shaker's Cigar Bar, located at 422 S. 2nd St., certainly knows a thing or two about old stories coming to life. After giving plenty of historical tours through the years and guiding eager guests to some of the city's ghosts, bar owner Bob Weiss and marketing director Amanda Morden are hoping they've found a new way to resurrect some of Milwaukee's old tales of yore: Hangman Radio.
Published Aug. 26, 2015
Now, with their Internet comedy series "Shangri-L.A.," Milwaukee-grown filmmakers Drew Rosas and Nick Sommer ("Billy Club," "Pester") are the latest to go in search of the worldly utopia. Well, kind of, as the search for dreams brings them to the very real city of Los Angeles - and to Kickstarter to help finish the 11 episode production.
Published Aug. 25, 2015
Yes, the Packers will probably be just fine without Jordy Nelson, who's done for the year with a significant right knee injury. But sometimes, you just need to grieve ... with a collection of Dubsmashes from Olivia Munn and Aaron Rodgers from before the injury that eerily fit this time of great sadness.
Published Aug. 23, 2015
If you're planning on riffing off of one of Hollywood's greatest director's greatest movies, you better know what you're doing. Luckily, the man behind "Phoenix" is the extremely talented German director Christian Petzold, who smartly takes a touch of Hitchcock and twists it into an impressive project all of his own, a brilliantly crafted modern post-war noir carefully cloaked in mystery that slowly but satisfyingly burns to a quiet fireworks display of a finale.
Published Aug. 22, 2015
The jazzy retro style of Guy Ritchie's "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." is slinky fun, but enjoy it while you can because, like a toddler, if you take your eyes off it for a second to grab your drink or glance at your watch or merely blink, it is gone, a whooshing little breeze where it once used to be on screen and in your mind. The projector might as well be one of those neuralizers from "Men in Black."
Published Aug. 19, 2015
Dieter Sturm may not be a household name, but for about 30 years, his work has been all over some of your favorite Hollywood movies. Yes, fitting for a Wisconsinite, Sturm's business is snow, and when a Hollywood production needs to call in anything from a flurry to a blizzard, Sturm and his Lake Geneva-based company Sturm Special Effects bring the storm.
Published Aug. 18, 2015
The first time Indianapolis native and "Big Lebowski" superfan Tom Esterline, Jr. saw the 1998 Coen Brothers cult classic, well, he fell asleep. But then he watched it again. And again. And again and again and so on until he became a superfan - an Achiever - decked in his finest Pendleton sweater and attending as many Lebowski Fests as possible - the next one located right here in Milwaukee this weekend at Cathedral Square Park.
Published Aug. 18, 2015
The combination of bagpipes and didgeridoo is an almost impossibly rare mix - one that belongs almost exclusively to Brother. Unfortunately, the band's upcoming return to River Rhythms on Wednesday night will likely be the final one of its kind, as lead singer Angus Richardson recently announced that he was stepping away from the band. Before his likely final Milwaukee show, we chatted with Richardson and reflect on saying goodbye to Brother.
Published Aug. 15, 2015
Some legendary movies managed to emerge from production fires stronger - "Jaws" and "Apocalypse Now" most famously - but "Fantastic Four" lands far from joining that company. The movie is a mess, one that - even at its best and most promising - plays like a sleepy also-ran before it even gets out of the gate.