Monday, November 29, 2021


In Belfast, Kenneth Branagh returns to the time and place of his younger days for a movie based on some boyhood impressions. And that’s what we get: impressions, fragments, glimpses, scenes warmly bathed in childlike innocence against the backdrop of sectarian strife that sets his parents’ minds toward leaving home and moving somewhere new. The movie is set in this obvious state of reminiscence, as the movie starts in clinical digital color and slowly fades to shiny black and white. He remembers some discussions of Catholics against Protestants and some cultural friction between Ireland and Britain. But above all else he remembers a cozy feeling of being surrounded by loving family. The movie finds the boy (Jude Hill) tromping around their working-class neighborhood, never more than out of earshot of his dear mother (Caitriona Balfe) calling him for dinner. He adores his father (Jamie Dornan), too, though the man is often away at work. He generally gets along with his moodier older brother (Lewis McAskie). He interacts with a swirl of cousins who’re always scampering about. He looks up to his grandfather (Ciarán Hinds) and grins at his grandmother (Judi Dench), two sweet old folks who give him lovely advice and good food. (His grandmother also takes him to see a play, reflected in full color in their eyes, a poignant moment from a director best known for his passionate Shakespearean adaptations.) Why, it’s just too bad that The Troubles had to mess with their perfect little world.

As the movie bumps along episodically, scenes don’t always feel complete or follow logically. It lingers in some moments and elides others, seemingly for no rhyme nor reason. It skips ahead, shifts to montage, or dawdles in minutiae. The result is, a handful of riots aside, a mild-mannered movie, gentle, soft, slight, and a little scattered. However, that feels true to its aims—not capturing a story so much as a collection of childhood memories, details, moments, conflicts, relationships, people. The sociopolitical implications are firmly background color and plot mechanic, while many supporting characters who appear and disappear sometimes at random remain at the level of surface impressions. Isn’t that just the way it is with a jumbled child’s-eye view of one’s own past? It may not build in scope or arrive at important revelation, but it’s ultimately a sweet movie about how much a grown man remembers being a little boy who loved his family with all his heart. No wonder he remembers them in gleaming black and white artifice, where his grandparents are wrinkled wisdom personified, and his father and mother are youthful and beautiful, singing and dancing, trying to do right by their little boy even as their world falls apart behind them.

Boyhood memories are much more fraught in Robert Greene’s Procession. His career as a documentarian has been concerned with performance as a way of processing reality. His Fake It So Real was about pro wrestling, while Actress and Kate Plays Christine dig deep into a performer’s process of building a role, and his Bisbee 17 had a small Arizona town reenact a 100-year-old massacre. (His work as an editor on sharply-written fictional character studies by Alex Ross Perry further bolsters his filmmaking’s psychological acuity.) His new film takes those ideas further into harrowing territory. In it, he collaborates with a group of men who have spoken about their past abuse by Catholic priests. Their stories are decades old now, but the pain is still fresh. Greene, working with a drama therapist and a lawyer, invites these men to script scenes that explore this element of their past. The documentary, then, is about filmmaking: writing, casting, location scouting. Yet every step is a journey into their pain. The men have long brainstorming sessions that double as a support group; they open up in heartbreaking ways, plumb the depths of their anger and betrayal, and share in the camaraderie and openness that only fellow survivors of such unimaginable violation can. The project gives them a way to orient their sharing toward a positive outcome. To share their stories, they think, is one more undeniable way to make a case for themselves and to give light and hope to others struggling with this burden. They talk of various court cases and legal wrangling with the Catholic Church, which, in each man’s case, has elements, if not entire claims, obfuscated, criticized, dragged out, downplayed, or ignored. Together they might be able to make art an act of grace, memory and truth an act of justice—grace and justice being two things Church officials seem slow to grant, or are unable to provide to these victims’ satisfaction.

We see the making of the men’s short films and the eventual final products—by turns testimony, nightmare, condemnation, explanation, reanimation, and act of self-forgiveness and letting go. They’ve explored their traumas, gone hunting for ways to represent the after-effects, literally retracing their steps in some cases. It’s difficult. But Greene films this so tenderly, and so plainly. He draws out their creative sides and, with professional assistance, makes art as a form of therapy. To do so, Greene doesn’t flinch from the heavy details; nor do the men hold back, though at times they pull away in self-preservation as they pick at emotional wounds that linger. A potentially upsetting variable, and yet so lovely in its act of protection and care, is the casting of a tween actor to play their stand-in. The scenes they’ve written have no explicit abuse in them, dealing more in implication, but are frank about the relational, spiritual, and emotional abuse that deviant priests inflicted upon them. (Some of the men even agree to play an abuser in these scenes, an obviously challenging prospect.) The young actor, surrounded by supportive parents and a generous crew, approaches the task with respect and care. The men bolster him, too, though all involved feel the seriousness on set. On the last day, the boy shakes the hand of a shaken older man and says in total sincerity: “I tried my best to tell your story.” That’s a powerful moment, and image—the present willing to attempt a healing of the past through the power of witness. The film finds its subjects excavating and exorcising their tragic pasts. It’s an unfailing honest and perceptive work. And it feels like nothing less than a personal reckoning that reverberates outwards and upwards towards a potential healing breakthrough.

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