By Michael Atkinson
[Photo: “Deliver Us from Evil,” Lionsgate, 2006]
The decision to make a documentary which even today is almost always a personal decision, not a corporate one is contingent on a number of things, but arguably foremost among them is the sense that your subject matter will produce honest-to-God fireworks. Being politically relevant or socially informative is hardly enough; you want human explosions and earthquakes, even if they’re the subtle, ironic variety found in politicking docs like Rachel Boynton’s “Our Brand Is Crisis” and Laura Poitras’s “My Country, My Country,” to pick just two recent examples. I’m not talking about psychodramatics in the film itself, but the sense of appalled outrage you as the audience experience when a film explores material ordinary passed over by the mass media, in depth and with attention the media never musters. (That’s what non-fiction film is for, no?) Still, no new-ish documentary will set fire to your house quite like Amy Berg’s “Deliver Us from Evil.” Only one contemporary non-fiction topic will boil the blood faster than pedophilia (as it did in “Capturing the Friedmans”), and that is, in a far-too-fervently Christian nation, pedophilia as it has been perpetrated and enabled by the Catholic Church.
Berg pulls the mother of all documentary tropes getting the guilty monster at the core of her controversy to not only cooperate with the film but to virtually assist in its making. Gaining the complicity of the morality-challenged makes for jaw-dropping cinema, just as it has since 1975’s “The California Reich” and its dumbfounded portrait of all-American neo-Nazis. Why would these people be they pedophiles, politicians, fascists or just plain assholes consent to a documentary crew shining a camera light on their actions? Perhaps it’s ego, or perhaps they often assume the default power of the Stockholm syndrome, which did in fact muddy the inquisitive waters, for example, of Ellen Perry’s “The Fall of Fujimori,” enjoying as it did hanging in exiled plutocrat Alberto Fujimori’s limo a little too much. But that’s the exception, and even Perry’s film emerged as something Fujimori, if he didn’t already have far larger problems, should have regretted.
In Berg’s remarkable film, the still-at-large ex-priest Oliver O’Grady speaks frankly and even engagingly about his sexual hunger for small children, and the literal decades he spent as a working clergyman in California, molesting, raping and sodomizing preadolescents as young as nine months. A kindly, soft-spoken, even leprechaun-ish Irishman, O’Grady is a walking cognitive dissonance he is in demeanor as far from a sneaky, creepy sex ogre as you could imagine. But there’s no getting around his relaxed shamelessness, or his actions, which are so universally abhorred by every culture on Earth that only within the rotten, power-mad bell jar of the Catholic Church could they be tolerated and even ignored. Which is what happened: Berg’s real story is in tracing exactly how O’Grady’s crimes were covered up by the Church, how he was bounced from parish to nearby parish for years, and how various archbishops and even the current Pope, in his old administrative role in the Vatican conspired to minimize the damage O’Grady wrought after the victims began speaking out.
The gone-public victims, all grown adults now, are appropriately lost in their own landscapes; the father of one, an aging Japanese-American man howling in recrimination, can barely keep the lid clamped on his furnace of rage. But somehow more stinging is the thorough case erected by the filmmaker and various activists (some of them ex-priests) around the utter self-defensive turpitude with which the Catholic Church, at almost every level, behaved in regards to O’Grady and thousands of predators just like him. The Church comes out of the facts bearing the ethical integrity of a corporation grown fat on the ruined lives of its customers in other words, as demonstratively criminal. Where’s the lawyer bringing it to The Hague?
If O’Grady is mentally ill, it’s in a way science hasn’t really figured out to address yet; we’re far afield from the old ideas of Freudian psychology, represented in the pop consciousness by Frank Perry’s classic 60s indie “David and Lisa” (1962). Nominated for Oscars (as was Berg’s film, 45 years later), “David and Lisa” is old-school, old-book gray-sky melodrama, in which two near-psychotic teenagers in an old-estate sanitarium overcome their inner barriers and connect. Keir Dullea is a wealthy, unbearably snooty anal-compulsive whose social tools are restricted to derision and dashing from the room; Janet Margolin is a chatterbox schizophrenic who must rhyme to prevent sinking into a complete dolorousness. Something of a sensation at the time among sensitive middle-classers, Perry’s film (written by his wife, Eleanor) does date, clearing the feverish, mannered stage where the committed portrayal of mental disturbance ends and sheer, unfettered overacting begins. But it’s exactly that stage that’s interesting today part Twilight Zone hysteria, part earnest Actors’ Studio “method,” part fashionable psychobabble, the movie is something like an act of healing made in response to Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” released two years earlier. (The sources of both films’ sicknesses are horribly maternal.) Watching it is not unlike viewing the black and white home movies of American cinema’s maturation, from pure and innocent Golden Age dream machine to struggling but hopeful realism of the American New Wave.
“Deliver Us From Evil” (Lionsgate) and “David and Lisa” (Homevision) are now available on DVD.