REVIEW – Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (2012)

MeaMaximaCulpa1FilmJuice have my review of Alex Gibney’s documentary Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God.

One of the most fascinating battlefronts in contemporary culture is the question of how the baby boomers will be remembered once they are gone. Raised amidst talk of their parents having been the greatest of all generations, the boomers have always been intensely aware of their own place in history and the need to impose some sort of narrative on their predictably chaotic lives. For a long time now, the baby boomers have been telling us that theirs was the most liberal and radical of generations: Neither empire-builders nor war-mongers, they came out against the Vietnam War, spawned the summer of love and demanded the right to live life entirely upon their own terms. That generation did it all and when the time came for them to ‘grow up’ they took their longhaired rebel logic with them into the boardroom and created one of the longest periods of sustained economic growth in the history of humanity. Nowhere is the desire to ‘fashion’ the generational narrative more evident than in Hollywood where B-movie Shitlord Roger Corman has been re-imagined as a visionary producer simply because Hollywood boomers need to believe that they rose to the top in a period of unrivalled openness and experimentation.

While inter-generational power differences mean that relatively few people are directly calling out the boomers on their relentless selfishness and toxic self-involvement, we are beginning to see some pushback in the form of prominent institutions falling into scandal and crisis. Indeed, the UK’s Operation Yewtree seems to be quietly re-inventing the swinging 60s as a time when men with jobs in the British media got to rape as many young women as they wanted while police and employers looked the other way. Turns out that ‘free love’ only ever applied to powerful white dudes. Alex Gibney’s documentary Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God is very much a part of this cultural battlefield as it is one of many recent documentaries to suggest that the 60s and 70s were a time when Catholic priests were effectively above the law when it came to the sexual abuse of children. Much like Kirby Dick’s Twist of Faith and Amy J. Berg’s Deliver Us From Evil, Mea Maxima Culpa suggests that child abuse was almost systemic as was the Church’s desire to protect the abuser at the expense of the abused.

The science fiction writer William Gibson once stated that while the future is here, it has not been evenly distributed and I think the same can be said of the liberal individualism of the baby boomers: Much like the revelations of Operation Yewtree, films like Mea Maxima Culpa suggest that while some people had a load of fun in the 60s and 70s, this fun came exclusively at the expense of people who have been denied the right to give their own impressions of what life was like at that particular time. Though Mea Maxima Culpa may lack the anger and analytic depth of films like Twist of Faith and Deliver us from Evil, it does do a singularly fantastic job of letting the voiceless speak for themselves, something that is particularly important given that the abused, in this case, were all deaf:

Gibney films his interviews with the survivors using an elegantly subdued form of lighting that beautifully emphasises the expressiveness of their faces. Also important is the fact that, rather than systematically cutting away from the survivors and having their words translated by non-deaf actors, Gibney keeps the audience’s attention firmly on the survivors allowing them to communicate their own feelings in their own words and in their own language. This choice of interview technique is important because Mea Maxima Culpa is not just about the Catholic Church’s attempts to cover-up decades of sexual abuse, it is also about giving a voice to people who had theirs taken away by a Church that claimed to have their best interests at heart.

As someone whose familiarity with sign language is limited to on-screen sign translation of TV programmes, it really was fascinating to see native signers using their own language to deliver incredibly personal and intimate truths. Sign translators are professional translators rather than actors and so they tend to translate what they are hearing in a way that communicates their personal detachment from the material (their facial expressions and body language tend to say ‘this is a sad bit’ rather than ‘I am sad’) and so seeing sign language being used in an emotive manner was really quite the revelation. Even if you are not all that interested in another story about the moral bankruptcy of the Catholic Church I think that Gibney’s interviews with the abuse survivors alone make this a film worth seeking out.