(*homocinematically inclined)

Friday, October 18, 2019

Reverend's Reviews: Cinema of the Abused


Print media and TV have been rife for some time now with often shocking, always sad stories of abused children, teenagers and adults of all ages. Currently, movie screens are awash in such tales. Two are intimate accounts of true events, while two others are fictional films that ring with varying degrees of truth.

Acclaimed, openly gay filmmaker François Ozon (Swimming Pool, Double Lover) is back with By the Grace of God, opening in New York this Friday and in Los Angeles on October 25th. This powerful exposé of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests in France won the coveted Silver Bear grand jury prize at this year's Berlin International Film Festival. Ozon's excellent, tasteful screenplay focuses on three adult men who were victimized as children by Fr. Bernard Preynat of the Diocese of Lyons. During the mid 1980's-early 1990's, the victims were Boy Scouts under Preynat's leadership. After protracted negotiations with church leaders starting in 2014 and a legal battle, Preynat was finally removed from the priesthood just last year. His bishop, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, was convicted earlier this year of covering up Preynat's abuse history and was sentenced to a suspended six month prison sentence.

By the Grace of God is not unlike the Oscar-winning 2015 film Spotlight in its detailed approach, but Ozon's film is unique in that it is told from the victims' perspectives whereas Spotlight focused on the investigation of Boston Globe reporters. (As a nice tribute, a Spotlight poster can be glimpsed in the background of one shot.) While unrelentingly critical of the Church's poor leadership during the abuse crisis, one of the victims – who is atheist – appropriately declares of his and the others' pursuit of justice: "This is about morality, not faith."

Ozon makes great, unexpectedly dramatic use of conveyed letters and email correspondences. And while the three subjects the filmmaker focuses on are heterosexual, one of them played by Melvil Poupaud (who previously starred in Ozon's Le Refuge) accurately states "sexual orientation is not a criminal perversion," unlike pedophilia. Mention is also made of a gay victim of Preynat's who ended up committing suicide, tragically. The victims' varying reactions to their abuse are interesting and authentic.

I came away from By the Grace of God wondering why a strong response to the history of clerical sexual abuse in France, which is so similar to our experience in the United States in the early 2000's, was delayed by more than a decade? Most likely it is because Catholicism has been entrenched there for centuries longer than here in the US. As the courageous survivors depicted in Ozon's latest work boldly state, "We want to push the Church to evolve." Amen to that!

Men of Hard Skin (now available on home video from TLA Releasing) tells a related but even more intimate and insightful story about the plight of young people abused by clergy. Jose Celestino Campusano's Argentina-set drama introduces viewers to Ariel, a religious teenager who devotedly volunteers at his local Catholic church against his father's wishes. That's because Ariel is in love with the hunky Fr. Omar, with whom he has been having a sexual relationship for some time. Ariel becomes enraged when he discovers Fr. Omar is feeling repentant and backing away from him.

After confronting Fr. Omar about his rejection, the precocious Ariel pursues a new, handsome farmhand working on his father's farm. The bisexual Julio is, unbeknownst to Ariel initially, married to a woman and has a baby girl. Things get ugly and more public after Ariel's dad catches his son and Julio having sex and beats Julio before firing him. Fortunately, Ariel's sister is accepting of his sexuality and wisely advises her brother against doing "anything to please others" and "don't betray yourself."

Writer-director Campusano nails the love-hate feelings that some sexual abuse victims develop toward their abusers, something that hasn't been shown often in movies dealing with the subject. It also accurately depicts how victims can become overly sexualized at an early age and, in turn, objectify others. But the character of Ariel (very effectively played by Wall Javier) becomes admirably aggressive toward and defensive against his abuser. He grows to realize he has been wronged and inspires other victims of Fr. Omar to rebel against the priest. This, coupled with its excellent cinematography of scenic settings, makes Men of Hard Skin a film to watch.

Then there are the two J's currently dominating movie screens: Joker and Judy. Both detail the horrific results of abuse starting at an early age, and both boast awards-worthy performances by their leading man and lady, respectively. Joker, however, is excessive and arguably irresponsible in its seeming endorsement of violence against perpetrators, at least wealthy ones.

Joaquin Phoenix is undeniably powerful as Arthur Fleck, a downtrodden resident of decrepit, pre-Batman Gotham City. Long convinced by his mother that his role in life is to bring happiness to others, Fleck works as a clown for hire by local businesses, hospitals and other organizations. Sadly, Fleck endures near-constant physical and/or emotional abuse from street hoodlums, co-workers, employers and passersby. One day he is pushed too far and ends up shooting three employees of the storied Wayne Enterprises to death after they attack him on a subway train. This unanticipated action and the general kudos it receives from his fellow poor citizens of Gotham, as well as more personal revelations, spark Fleck's evolution as the sinister kingpin (and Batman's arch-nemesis) Joker.

Joker, the movie, is a huge international hit but has received wildly divergent reactions from critics and viewers ever since its premiere at September's Venice Film Festival, where it unexpectedly won the fest's Best Picture trophy. Drawing too obviously at times from the early works of Martin Scorsese, it serves as a retro prequel (set in 1981 to be exact) to Tim Burton's Batman series. In presenting a villain forged from personal abuse, however, it takes a dramatic turn from the origin of Jack Nicholson's Joker. While well-acted and well-made, this is a depressing and morally troubling movie, especially when it comes to its "kill the rich" denouement/encouragement.

The late, great singer-actress Judy Garland endured systematic abuse beginning at the age of two from managers, studio heads, and her own mother. Most significantly, they got her addicted to drugs as a child starlet so she could perform on demand. As an adult, her ongoing addictions to drugs, alcohol and manipulative men ruined her career and led to her early death at the age of 47.

Judy, now playing, is the latest of several dramatizations of Garland's life. This biopic is adapted from, and actually an improvement on, Peter Quilter's more sensationalistic play End of the Rainbow. In particular, the movie shows how MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer abused Garland emotionally and subsequently controlled her. Renee Zellweger is sensational in a good way as the title icon. While Zellweger is subtle more often than not in her channeling of Garland, the musical numbers remind viewers simultaneously of both women's artistry and endearing vulnerability. Hollywood's award season is just getting underway but Zellweger would get my vote for Best Actress if I had to vote now.

Reverend's Ratings:
By the Grace of God: A-
Men of Hard Skin: B+
Joker: C
Judy: B+

Reviews by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film and stage critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

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