Working today, very few directors compare to a name like Alex Gibney. Very few, if any, have the ability to blend real cinematic energy with Charles Ferguson-esque focus on central and bluntly stated facts and figures, all while focusing on everything from US torture practices in a film like his masterpiece, Taxi To The Darkside to sports fandom in the underrated ESPN documentary, Catching Hell. However, he may have met his toughest subject, and has in turn not only met that challenge, but churned out one of the most important and entrancing documentaries of last year.
Now available on DVD, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence In The House Of God arrives on store shelves after a brief theatrical run and a stint on HBO, and is inarguably the most interesting film hitting store shelves this week. What’s the core subject that has found Gibney at his most focused and level headed?
In his new (or one of his newest, at least, as he’s not only a great filmmaker, but a shockingly prolific one; he has two films hitting this year) film, Gibney tells the story of four deaf men, once altar boys, who were molested during their youth by a local priest. However, it doesn’t just stop there. A meditation on bureaucratic corruption within The Catholic Church, Mea Maxima Culpa takes this intimate and deeply troubling launching point, and weaves a tale of corruption so dense and maze like, that it makes its way to the very tip top of the Vatican. Again, one of Gibney’s most focused films in years, this is an absolutely haunting documentary that is both a devastating look at monsters aiding monsters and a powerful look at a group standing up against what is ostensibly a group of priests and a church that is “above the law.”
While one wouldn’t venture to say Gibney is the “star” of this picture, it is through his clear mind and focused eyes that this story truly becomes emotionally resonant. He introduces us to four men all of who became victims of a vicious priest named Lawrence Murphy. Murphy, worker at a boarding school for deaf children, would, throughout his time there (roughly 1950-1974) would molest 200 boys. However, as mentioned above, the film doesn’t stop here. As one of the more widely reported cases of sexual abuse seen come out of the Catholic Church, this film still finds a way to be deeply entrancing and as vital today as it would have been years prior.
It’s in Gibney’s ability to weave this tale into a broader story of systematic corruption that turns this film into something not only timeless, but unforgettable. Gibney turns this story set in Milwaukee, WI into something that is indicative of a collection of men, the Catholic Church, that, up to the highest office, is corrupt. Truly the case that launched the wave of sex scandals involving members of the Catholic Church, the film’s greatest attribute is in its ability to paint a dense portrait of what appears to be a system, that very church, that is at its very core completely rotten. From their original stance of wondering how priests could do these heinous acts (instead of worrying about those having the acts committed against) to not only knowing about each case but having former Pope Pope Benedict XVI (then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) involved with each, and every, single damn case brought up, Mea Maxima Culpa is both utterly haunting and beyond anger inducing.
And the film isn’t without the Gibney staple, the enthralling tangent. Be it a truly evil Irish priest who has a penchant for Elvis impersonations or the original idea of the Catholic Church purchasing an island to house these monsters, the film never focuses the entirety of its spotlight to these stories, instead adding them to a list of trespasses that hint at just how organized this corruption, and, as the title would hint, the Church’s silence surrounding the subject truly was.
However, the final moments hint at what this film is truly focusing on. While the inherent tale of corruption is what many will sink their teeth into, with one sign of “deaf power” (a man, fist in air, hand against his ear), Alex Gibney’s film is a deeply troubling meditation on systematic corruption within the most powerful institution the world has ever known, and also an equally touching look at a group of men going toe to toe with that institution, come Hell or high water. Easily one of last year’s greatest documentaries, Mea Maxima Culpa will leave many emotionally devastated, many angry, but it will leave everyone talking.