US docs 'Mea Maxima Culpa,' 'Central Park Five' and 'West of Memphis' powerfully take on corrupt authorities

Posted by · 5:24 pm · October 18th, 2012

LONDON — There’s a temptation at film festivals to imagine cinematic trends based on certain likenesses between films screened in close proximity – though when those films drift away from each other out in the real world, those initial overlaps don’t always seem so resonant. So I’m not going to point to something in the air after watching three standout US documentaries at the London Film Festival – “Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God,” “Central Park Five” and “West of Memphis” – that chronicle a range of young individuals failed in various ways by American authorities.

Even so, their shared spirit of measured fury is striking: each film documents a long night’s journey into day of sorts, as a severe human infraction is brought to rights – or at least partial correction – over the course of years, or even decades. The inequities of the United States justice system come under scrutiny in “Central Park Five” and “West of Memphis,” while “Mea Maxima Culpa” puts the Catholic Church atop its target list. Considered distrust of the social systems designed to protect us, however, courses through all of them, making for a powerful American collective in a touchy election year.

Perhaps the most ambitious of the three, “Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God” (B+) is typically methodical and level-headed work from Oscar-winning docmaker Alex Gibney (“Taxi to the Dark Side”), but that’s not to suggest it’s any way cautious. The grave subject it takes on – the alarming global proliferation of uncovered sexual abuse in the Catholic Church – isn’t untouched on screen; Amy Berg’s Oscar-nominated “Deliver Us From Evil” took on the issue in 2006. But Gibney has delivered the most far-reaching and internationally engaged film yet on the scandal. That he’s done this while deftly relating a more intimate, and distinctly unusual, community narrative amid the larger institutional excoriation is quite remarkable. 

The unique perspective showcased in Gibney’s film is that shared by four deaf, middle-aged Milwaukee men, all former classmates at a local Catholic academy for the deaf – and all profoundly scarred by years of sexual molestation at the hands of a kindly-seeming priest who, it turns out, similarly violated over 200 other boys over a 25-year stint at the school. Together, the four boys took the first steps to militant action against the abuse – heroically distributing awareness flyers to the community – in the face of crushing indifference from the police and the law.

This story alone is heady documentary material, but Gibney is determined to further peel back the root of this widespread moral travesty – and is willing to go all the way to the Vatican to prove his point, as an informed cadre of expert talking heads, some from within the Church itself, detail the Catholic power heads’ longtime awareness of, and complicity in, the crisis, with Pope Benedict XVI chief among the silent guardians of the truth. (The Vatican, shockingly enough, turned down all Gibney’s interview requests.)

This is fragile territory, but Gibney is a listener more he is a polemicist. Himself a lapsed Catholic, he delicately but crucially keeps notions of Church and faith separate in the conversation, and the resulting film is impassioned without ever sounding shrill or inflammatory. (Some, however, may question to wisdom of soft-focus reconstructions of behind-closed-doors that, while inexplicit, have a deliberate horror-film tint.)

Most commendable of all, meanwhile, is the calibrated grace with which Gibney and editor Sloane Klevin balance the character narrative of the deaf men (given distinctive voices in their to-camera interviews, from such actors as John Slattery and Ethan Hawke) against his more expansive investigations, never condescending to them even as the film’s finale serves up a surge of lump-in-the-throat defiance. You’ll leave the cinema rightfully angry, yet still not half as much as they are.

That the less ornately titled but similarly spider-shaped “Central Park Five” (B+) shares with Gibney’s film a kind of academic reserve and rationalized anger is unsurprising when you consider that it’s co-directed by leading American documentarian Ken Burns (“The Civil War”), whose work is distinguished by its archival fine-tooth combing. His exhaustive research skills (here working in conjunction with his daughter and son-in-law, Sarah Burns and David McMahon) are invaluable in bringing to screen a scandal that can invite hotter heads – and has, many times over.

It’s a story with which you may already be familiar, or at least believe yourself to be so. When the film first popped up at Cannes in the spring, the words ‘Central Park Five’ struck a match in my brain: in the summer of 1989, I was six years old and living across the river from New York City, where the media noise over the alleged gang rape and near-murder of a female jogger in the city’s famous green lung was most deafening. I scarcely understood what it meant, but I saw the news and read enough headlines absorb the basic narrative: five African-American and Hispanic teenagers confessed to the crime and, after a loudly protracted trial, were locked up for seven to 12 years. Justice served. Done.

Where’s the story, then? Well, the fact that they didn’t do it, for starters. This will come as the film’s principal revelation for many, given that the disproving and eventual overturning of the men’s convictions 10 years ago was a far quieter news story. Though a riveting indictment of the ladders of legal and judicial corruption that destroyed the lives of five innocent children, “Central Park Five” is no less grave a critique of the irresponsible media that egged on the accusers by stirring up racially-based hysteria likened by more than one commentator here to Jim Crow-era persecution.

Pragmatically constructed from jaw-dropping archive finds and candid talking heads – four of the titular Five appear on screen, while the fifth supplies off-camera testimony – the film has no need for voiceover or editorializing as it builds a propulsive procedural drama around this misbegotten case; the first-hand evidence is galvanizing enough.

Burns’ trump card is sharing the complete video-recorded ‘confessions’ of three of the punch-drunk boys, complete with blatantly coercive interjections from the detectives and public prosecutor, all of which wind up contradicting each other on every key detail. That these were considered incriminating in court is sobering evidence of the susceptibility of power structures to overriding public sentiment. This otherwise immaculately thorough study arguably falters only in either failing or refusing to uncover the boys’ actual alibi for the crime, which evidence suggests may have been lesser criminal activity: the knowledge may be irrelevant to miscarriage of justice under trial here, but could further enrich the moral authority of a fascinating film.

If the aforementioned Amy Berg’s “West of Memphis” (B-) feels a little less invigorating than “Central Park Five” in its own breakdown of a devastasting wrongful conviction, that’s because it’s following in the still-wet footprints of the “Paradise Lost” trilogy, which reached its Oscar-nominated conclusion only last year. Berg’s polished, subject-authorized new take has the most to offer to audiences unfamiliar with the story of the West Memphis Three – a trio of teenagers unjustly imprisoned for the murder of three younger boys – but it’s not entirely redundant, expanding on the third “Paradise Lost” film’s theory on an alternative suspect, and offering heartfelt personal reflections from the recently released men.

To that end, it’s significant if not necessarily advantageous that one of the Three, Damien Echols, co-produced “West of Memphis”; the producers’ names that you’re likeliest to see on the poster, however, are those of Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, two of the many famous entertainment-industry figures who joined the media protests over the case’s tragically farcical handling. Walsh, in particular, befriended Echols’s wife, writing her any number of motivational letters. Their correspondence is related in voiceover, providing some stickily self-aggrandizing moments in a film whose few other tonal miscalculations include too much lurid lingering on the murder victims’ grotesque injuries.

Jackson and Walsh’s presence isn’t the only reason “West of Memphis” feels a little like the blockbuster counterpart to the “Paradise Lost” films. Emphatically redemptive, grippingly linear (150 minutes veritably fly by) and graced with a directly emotive score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, it’s easy to imagine it as the precursor to a full-scale Hollywood biopic of the West Memphis Three. With this particular injustice still a raw wound in the supposed land of the free, it’s hardly a story that can be told too many times.

Look out for my interview with “Mea Maxima Culpa” director Alex Gibney soon. Our London Film Festival coverage will continue with more foreign-language Oscar contenders from Spain, The Netherlands and Mexico.

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