Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (***½)

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It’s been a pretty good year for documentaries in my opinion, and few have been better than Alex Gibney’s latest film ‘Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God‘. An all too familiar and original story, in the sense that Gibney is focusing on the sexual abuse of children by the Catholic Church, but this time around he’s looking at disabled kids being molested, mainly deaf boys. It’s an emotional story, no doubt, but in lesser hands this easily could have seemed like a cheap production latching on to other stories of this ilk, but this is obviously not that. By taking this one particular case and using it as a jumping off point to discuss the church’s dysfunction and corruption, Gibney differentiates himself in a very powerful way. I fully expect this to be a major contender for Best Documentary Feature at the Oscars, not just for a nomination, but for a win as well.  For my money, it’s among the very best things that Gibney’s ever done.

Pedophilia is an issue for the Catholic Church, that seems to have been accepted by most. Here, we’re looking at one specific instance, which happens to also be the very first known instance of protesters trying to identify and punish a priest for molesting children. At the start of the documentary, we focus on a case in Milwaukee during the early 1950’s. Father Lawrence Murphy runs a school for the deaf and actually uses their disability as a way to conceal his crimes, as Gibney details through interviews with the now middle-aged victims. As the film moves forward, the focus expands and looks at the failings of the Vatican to deal with these horrors, introducing us to monks who investigated their brothers, including one who literally was under instruction to sweep his findings under the rug to prevent embarrassment. The issue of moving pedophile priests from parish to parish is explored, as well as condemning Pope Benedict XVI for his actions during that time too. Gibney also shows the influence of money here, with powerful individuals currently inside the church. He even makes the case that American politicians such as Rick Santorum are under the financial influence of this group. The focus is obviously on this original case and what’s happened since then, but Gibney does cast a wide net as things progress, and it’s truly horrific. The point of it all is to suggest that the church won’t ever clean up its own mess until its forced to, and I believe that the argument is made incredibly effectively.

One interesting thing done here is that the filmmaker has given these deaf men voices. He’s employed actors such as Chris Cooper, Ethan Hawke, Jamey Sheridan, and John Slattery to convert the sign language testimonies to spoken words. It’s initially an odd decision, but it worked for me, as it drives home the point that these men were once boys who couldn’t speak up. They certainly tried their best, and we even see one of them confront Father Murphy later in life, but as boys they were unable to communicate to their parents what was going on, so the abuse just continued. It’s very emotional to see, but never manipulative. The scene of confrontation in particular is really something to behold.

Alex Gibney is no stranger to “important” documentaries, but he’s using as deft a touch as ever here. The evidence is convincing and the argument is well constructed, but Gibney never overplays his hand or manipulates your emotions. I was very impressed by his choices in the film, and that’s saying something. By starting out small and slowly building up, he takes you along for the ride in just the right way. I left the documentary angry and emotional, but I felt like it was earned. This is advocacy for change and it’s pitch perfect in its argument. Gibney is working on a level that only a handful of documentarians are currently. I can’t see the Academy not gravitating towards this doc, but we’ll see soon enough when the shortlist comes out for our perusal.

When ‘Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God’ opens this weekend, audiences will be getting a chance to see a top-notch Oscar contender. ‘The Invisible War’ could be the frontrunner now, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that changes soon. This is a fantastic documentary and Alex Gibney nailed the material. I can’t imagine anyone leaving this documentary not wanting to see this scandal cleaned up. Whether you’re religious or not, there’s no excuse for the Vatican to be up to this kind of behavior. The film condemns them for their actions and rightly so. Be sure to catch this documentary if you can, it comes very highly recommended.

Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!