Interview: Alex Gibney on exposing the Catholic Church and giving voice to the deaf in 'Mea Maxima Culpa'
“My film may be about the Catholic Church, but you can see this same abuse of power, in other institutions, whether it's Penn State or the BBC. And you see how predators can live in plain sight due to their outsized reputations – how Jimmy Savile got away with it is the same as how Father Murphy got away with it. So I think 'Mea Maxima Culpa' has a lot to say about how the mechanism of cover-up works, when institutions are more concerned with protecting power than protecting lives.”
Though the making of the film saw Gibney taking on some daunting institutions – a terse intertitle mentions that no Vatican representative was unwilling to be interviewed, though the director tells me he pressed hard for one – the smaller story of the deaf men, whose attempted action against their abuser began with handmade protest flyers at school before ascending, in decades to come, to higher legal authorities, was no less challenging.
“Initially I was terrified of telling this story in audio-visual terms, because all my key witnesses were deaf, and I'd never really penetrated that world before,” Gibney say, “but I think it ended up being one of the film's most cinematic aspects.” He explains the unusual shooting setup devised for the interviews with the four subjects – Terry Kohut, Gary Smith, Pat Kuehn and Arthur Budzinski – which involved four cameras in a studio, while Gibney conducted the interviews from a separate room, with a translator.
“By having me in a separate room, which I would otherwise never have done, we were able to mike them,” he explains. “And at first they thought we were absolutely crazy: 'Why are you miking us? We don't speak!' But it was the sound of their struggle to communicate, at least to the hearing world, that I found so moving. So in terms of cinema, photographing and recording the deaf became a defining element of the film.”
Voicing the deaf was another priority. After deliberating back and forth with an executive producer who felt subtitling the deaf men's dialogue would be the better route, Gibney decided instead to have their testimonies narrated by actors – including such well-known names as John Slattery, Chris Cooper and Ethan Hawke. “I wanted the hearing viewers to focus intently on their signing, on their actions, rather than reading subtitles,” he says. “Their language is very expressive. I also thought it would be more emotional to do it with actors who can inhabit these characters: as a hearing viewer, you feel it more with a voice attached.”
The casting process was intuitive, based on finding voices that matched the physical presence and manner of the men themselves – while Slattery, also raised Catholic, had his own emotional connection to the story. Gibney chose to shoot the subjects much as you would shoot actors: “We were originally advised that you can only shoot deaf people in a wide frame so you can see every aspect of their gestures. But I missed the power of seeing their eyes, their mouths, their hands up close. So rightly or wrongly, I went against that advice.”
Arousing more dissent than Gibney's portrayal of his deaf subjects has been the film's stylized reconstructions of their traumatic childhood experiences. Menacing but not explicit, these shots of red-lit corridors and encroaching footsteps have been questioned by otherwise admiring critics for an aesthetic that the director freely admits is inspired by Hammer Horror films. Such imagery, Gibney says, is fully in keeping with his subjects' own experience.
“With each film, you find a logic and a style that makes sense for that particular story,” he says. “In some films, dramatizations make no sense at all. In this one, I felt strongly that they did, because there's a sense of almost collective memory that some of the kids had, and also a sense of ritual – both of which I felt the dramatizations respected. They all remembered the red glow of the exit sign, they all remembered being terrified in their beds because they couldn't hear Murphy coming, and then suddenly seeing his feet. These details resonated very strongly with me, and I decided it was important to visualize them, so there wouldn't be just an intellectual engagement with their memory.”
Gibney also employed aestheticized reconstructions of Church rituals for effect. “There was a peculiar kind of communication going on that I felt was important to describe: the violation of the confessional. There are people who call that 'soul murder.' You're so exposed when you're confessing something to a priest – what could be worse than the priest abusing that trust to prey on you? The Church regards that as a crime in canon law, which has no statute of limitations. So to be able to film that as a ritual was terribly important to me.”
“We actually found a church in Rome, of all places, which had a very peculiar setup with glass on the doors – so you could see the shadows of people inside the confession booth without being able to actually see who they were. That was powerful to me, so we duplicated that effect in a studio. And we also had a rig whereby we shot down vertically from above, almost as if from the perspective of heaven, on the confessional. That perspective had a kind of evidentiary quality to it, a crime film quality, that I also rather liked.”