MFF 2012 DAY NINE: Las Acacias – The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie – Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God

COMPLETE MILWAUKEE FILM FESTIVAL 2012 COVERAGE

DAY ONE: Starbuck – Opening Night Party
DAY TWO: Ethel – Come As You Are – Bones Brigade: An Autobiography – V/H/S
DAY THREE: Sans Soleil – Dead Weight – Andrew Bird: Fever Year
DAY FOUR: Inland Empire – Bad Brains: A Band in DC
DAY FIVE: Pink Ribbons, Inc. – 11 Flowers – How to Survive a Plague
DAY SIX: Romancing in Thin Air – Elena – The Imposter
DAY SEVEN: 5 Broken Cameras – Goodbye – High Tech, Low Life
DAY EIGHT: Big Boys Gone Bananas!* – Off White Lies – The Milwaukee Show
DAY NINE: Las Acacias – The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie – Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God
DAY TEN: Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry – Policeman
DAY ELEVEN: Quartet – No God No Master
DAY TWELVE: Mourning – As Goes Janesville – Blackmail – The Ambassador
DAY THIRTEEN: The Invisible War – Klown
DAY FOURTEEN: Old Dog – Little Red – Five Star Existence
DAY FIFTEEN: The Sessions – Detropia

10-5 F
09/15

I enter 2011 Argentinian film Las Acacias knowing it has been favorably accepted by some cinephile peers and found it does not disappoint, provided, that is, you do have not have particularly high expectations of the narrative, a very simple story about an emotionally bereft trucker who agrees to ferry a young woman from Asunción del Paraguay to Buenos Aires along with a load of felled acacias. It would already be difficult enough for driver Rubén to so much as exist in tethered proximity to the lovely young woman, Jacinta, and the surprise presence of her adorable tot Anahí forces him to expel emotional energy he may not have to spare – he who is usually grimly smoking, reconciled to a life of emptiness. Most of the film is viewed from two camera positions: mounted on the driver’s side window, facing Jacinta, and vice-versa. It’s less than 90 minutes and is entirely focused on emotional minutiae – one heart-warming look from the baby to Rubén marks a profound narrative turn. There is technically nothing wrong with this film, a solid 4/5 which only really ‘lacks’ to supermen of sensory input like myself and my cursed generation. It did not lack, but I won’t view it again. This sort of represents the best possible example of what a student film could be… brief, soberly minimal and never indulgent, positive and compassionate and really involving nothing controversial at all, and a script that is not, you know, vomit and piss and excrement. No, Las Acacias is fine viewing! So far I’ve heard nobody pronounce this film’s title correctly. Seriously, people, come on.

I enter the Oriental Theater to see director Alex Gibney (No End in Sight, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God) being interviewed near the rear by the local media. At 2:15 on a Friday the modest turnout is composed largely of the middle-aged, and actually this is how a great deal of this festival has been populated (particularly every single matinee film). In these moments it’s extremely rare to find somebody within a decade of my age. First criteria void, secondary objective: find the moneyed.

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie was chosen by filmmaker Gibney and presented as part of Milwaukee Film’s tribute to the filmmaker. In the Q&A after the film, Gibney would say how inspirational Buñuel had been even though he himself is perfectly aware that there is no discernible connection between Buñuel’s lifetime focus on fiction and surrealism and Gibney’s own interest in topical, journalistic work. But Gibney (correctly) cannot deny the supremacy of Buñuel and, god bless him, chose the gin-soaked auteur to grace our big big screen. Gibney would recount that he contacted Buñuel to discuss the possibility of making a documentary on the man, and that he actually framed Buñuel’s very kind and unequivocal rejection. Gibney notes, with I think an unsuccessful level of intrigue, that Discreet Charm could even be considered a companion piece to his Mea Maxima Culpa since both films are “rigorously unreligious.” Whatever you say.

My first big screen Buñuel, and that’s something you feel. I had forgotten just how… godly this effer is (“dreamy,” let’s say). Watching late Buñuel puts into perspective the shamefully low standards for film and writing present in America (and elsewhere, but America). Gush gush gush, look at me go. Buñuel is one of those filmmakers whom I fell deeply in love with ten years ago (he immediately populated my top five) yet have not obsessed over for some time; he was just always there, always remembered as a superstar, me trusting my old memories. Well, I was correct and then some. There are so few ideas present in the cinema, but there are 100,000 ideas here. Mostly, though, I had forgotten how fucking funny the man was – the priest fascinated by the life of a gardener, the marijuana cavalry, “the terrorists,” and really everything done by Fernando Rey’s silly aristocrat and Bulle Ogier’s (now there’s a name) boozy tag-along. If I had not previously seen something as powerful as Sans Soleil, Discreet Charm would’ve unquestionably occupied the highest honor of my ignominious ranking chart. This screening was a real treat (in case you couldn’t tell).

Here’s what I noted, and what Gibney was at a loss to elucidate during the Q&A (and I don’t blame him, it’s utterly abstuse): namely, that saying a film has a ‘dream quality’ is as lazy an appellation to whip out as ‘Kafka-esque’, that any work of art that incorporates absurdism can often have the d-word associated with it. But during this film I noticed so many singular dream-like elements that are not seen elsewhere, and the one that stuck out to me the most was ‘frustration.’ The continuous interruptions, “I forgot my lines,” the inability of characters to have sex, the foiled terrorism plot, the restaurant being out of all beverages but water, and more… And it occurred to me that this is a common dream cliche. What is the connection? Why is frustration something that is readily expressed/experienced in dreams? Let me know if you have any thoughts on the subject, dear readers. Eliminate the ellipsis inspired by the Spanish surrealist.

Without a camera to record the events (Dear MKE: it was lifted), all the Daveman can do it sit on the first level of stairs in the Oriental’s lobby and live-blog what he sees. The red carpet Step-and-Repeat featuring the film’s cast, triumphant, interviewed by multiple crews from HBO who did not even realize they’d be meeting. At 6pm the line for the film outside has already stretched far down the street for this, that’s right, the US premiere of Alex Gibney’s Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God and Centerpiece to this year’s MFF. CBS Local News, they’re all here (“we’re” all here, I suppose. My press pass feels quite silly to me). And it is confirmed, the word on the street (“I’m a publicist; trust me!”) is that this film will be an Oscar contender. And if nothing else this is assuredly quite an event for Milwaukee, the mad scientist’s lab where many of the film’s victims were created.

These victims are the children who attended St. John’s School for the Deaf in St. Francis, WI and were sexually abused by priest Lawrence Murphy while he taught there between 1950-1974. In this instance Mea Maxima Culpa translates to, basically, “our bad… seriously” and is in reference to the wholly uncontroversial Catholic Church, centered on the highest papal authority in Vatican City. Once the young boys at St. John’s aged enough to comprehend the extent of the madness perpetrated on them, some begin to understand how difficult it would be to bring Lawrence to justice. Lawrence, who would specifically target the deaf children whose parents could not sign, informed all investigators that the children were all little liars, leading to the insultingly cursory efforts made by involved police, lawyers, even the Milwaukee DA’s office. And what about the church? Well, official policy is to deal with such indiscretions quietly, in-house, usually by not dealing with them at all or by laterally moving the offenders to other parishes (Murphy was relocated to a smaller congregation outside Lake Superior, WI, and we can only hope his Pedophile Membership Card had expired by then. If offenders are more troubled then they are sent to Jesus Camp, otherwise known as Servants of the Paraclete, a series of treatment centers which pray the pedophile right out of you (worth noting that this org’s founder, Father Gerald Fitzgerald, would become convinced that these derelict priests could not be cured, let alone controlled). There was even talk among the papacy of creating an absurdity like “Pedophile Island,” which I’m sure your imagination can populate without exposition. The organization within the church which does the in-house management of the crimes of the Catholic Church is known as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the artists formerly known as The Inquisition) and between 1985 and 2001 was oversaw by then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the man who would demand in 2001 that every single case of sexual abuse within the church be filtered directly through him, personally. I hope you are already aware that Mr. Ratzinger is the man who became Pope Benedict XVI.

Intriguing enough for you yet? But that’s not all: most disturbing, and the one area where action can be taken to begin to solve the big problems (in my humble opinion) is Vatican City’s status as a state, with its own laws, courts (but surely not currency, I amusedly ponder) and, in essence, accountability to no one (the documentary grimly points out the historically ignored foundation of Vatican City’s statehood: Benito Mussolini). So let’s strip Vatican City of statehood, remove the dubious tax-exempt status of religious institutions and begin to judge this institution by the standards of our infinitely wiser age.

Have I gone off-topic? Are you wondering if Murphy got his due, if the abused boys got their justice? Addressing the former, thank your lucky stars, Lawrence Murphy is dead and was buried in August 1998 – buried with the consent and beatification of the Catholic Church, never having been defrocked, a decision they defend to this day. Guess heaven’s criteria for entry have slackened. Father Murphy would be described in the docu by investigator Archbishop Weakland as “not evil, but childlike.” This may make Murphy sound considerably less sinister or overtly frightening, but does replace these feelings with infinitely more nauseating and nasty ones. Within the film are extracts from Murphy’s journal entries and really, the man just sounded mentally skewed and deficient, seemingly convinced he was actually helping his young victims, educating them, cleansing them… wild madnesses only possible within the perverted logic of dogmatism. As for my second point, no, the abused boys did not get their justice, an almost self-evident fact since this documentary exists. They learned that the Catholic Church appears to be more concerned with the protection of its own priests than of the welfare of the many, many victims of sexual abuse by religious figures. The best thing I can do is recount this information for you, as I was most pleased with Mea Maxima Culpa‘s educational value. The documentary’s craft is not revolutionary, but its content is incendiary. I would be interested to hear any argument which claims this film should not win the Oscar for best documentary; is there any documentary involving injustice which could be more important than one involving a high-ranking Catholic conspiracy of silence? Fyi, the companion piece to this film, also screened at MFF, is a docu called The Invisible War about a similar criminal code of silence over the sexual abuse perpetrated within the US military. Another terrifying and enraging portrait. I see no reason why these films, actually, should not tie for best docu.

For a succinct summary of the contents of this film, see this.

PS – Does it seem weird to anybody else that victims of sexual abuse are referred to as “survivors?” I’m not unsympathetic but semantically that just isn’t correct.

written by David Ashley

Seen so far:
Starbuck
Ethel
Come As You Are
Bones Brigade: An Autobiography
V/H/S
Sans Soleil
Dead Weight
Andrew Bird: Fever Year
Inland Empire
Bad Brains: A Band in DC
Pink Ribbons, Inc.
11 Flowers
How to Survive a Plague
Romancing in Thin Air
Elena
The Imposter
5 Broken Cameras
Goodbye
High Tech, Low Life
Big Boys Gone Bananas!*
Off White Lies
The Milwaukee Show
Las Acacias
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God

Ranked:
Sans Soleil
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
Inland Empire
Big Boys Gone Bananas!*
Goodbye
Elena
5 Broken Cameras
Bones Brigade: An Autobiography
Las Acacias
Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God
11 Flowers
Ethel
How to Survive a Plague
Andrew Bird: Fever Year
Bad Brains: A Band in DC
High Tech, Low Life
Come As You Are
Off White Lies
V/H/S
Pink Ribbons, Inc.
The Imposter
Starbuck
Romancing in Thin Air
Dead Weight

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