Thursday, February 27, 2014

FRONTLINE: Secrets of the Vatican

Produced for “Frontline” on “PBS,” the documentary “Secrets of the Vatican” is a potpourri of scandal that is curiously inconsistent in its allegations and completely inept as narrative. Yet the show takes such a lurid delight in its muckraking that the documentary is a weird guilty pleasure. The Vatican and its “curia” stand accused of a myriad of crimes, most of them unrelated, and so the film leaps from one tawdry scandal to another without much rhyme or reason. But it’s perversely entertaining and, certainly, infuriating in a kind of mindless way -- hypocritical abuse of power always gets your dander up. In the documentary, institutional Roman Catholicism is accused of child sexual abuse, cover-up, bank fraud, thuggish intimidation, mafia infiltration, narcissism of various kinds, rampant homosexuality and a culture of predatory sexual practices that would have shamed Caligula. It is implied that the Curia plots murders, smuggles money in briefcases to the tune of 20 million euros, and protects monsters in its clergy if they are sufficiently effective in their fundraising to warrant the Pope’s blessing. Pope Benedict is darkly implied to have resigned in horror and disgust as a result of an official investigation itemizing the Curia’s misdeeds -- we see the elderly man hauled away from the Vatican by helicopter to sinister music. Someone says that when Benedict was touring the Stations of the Cross, he paused at one of those images of Christ’s passion and cried out that the church was under attack from “filth” -- "filth from within." This indictment is picturesquely filmed -- we see children in reenacted sequences summoned down gloomy corridors by priests who are like sybaritic fiends from a book by the Marquis de Sade; votive candles gutter as we are regaled with tales of child rape involving spurting semen and blood drizzling from lacerated genitalia. One Mexican priest, renowned for his fundraising abilities and, therefore, a special favorite of John Paul, is alleged to have conceived children solely for the purpose of buggering them half to death. We see this monster locking lips with John Paul who is withered by age and disease into the semblance of a malevolent mummy. There are weird rites: footwashing and crowds of young priests lying on their bellies, supine, before the Pope’s throne in St. Peter’s, the action filmed from an aerial vantage to emphasize the sheer, bizarre spectacle. The Vatican towers over Rome, the dome of St. Peter swollen under forboding skies like a giant, cancerous tumor and music signals doom, panic, and horror, cues derived, it seems, from third-rate slasher pictures. We see the locked Vatican archives, acres of sinister filng cabinets behind cyclone fence partitions, an image that evokes the end of Welles’ “Citizen Kane” and the more paranoiac shots of government records displayed in “The X Files.” One showy sequence feaures a camera tracking backward as a stately Swiss Guard advances toward the camera, caparisoned like Harlequin, to pull shut towering doors, thus barring us forever from access to “the secrets of the Vatican.” Parts of the film are inadvertently risible: one priest leaves the ministry tempted by a beautiful young woman -- one look at the girl and you can see why he was renounced celibacy. But the episode goes nowhere --”due to Vatican bullying,” the narrator intones, “the couple are no longer together” although the image shows them strolling hand-in-hand in some luscious-looking Roman park. Another sequence is like something from Monty Python -- hidden cameras record priests at an orgiastic party: the men are gyrating with “escorts”, hunky-looking lads who are like figures from a Tom of Finland cartoon, all bare-torso and leathern menace,their faces blurred and disco-lights flashing with music ominously throbbing like an outtake from Bill Friedkin’s “Cruising.” After the party, the priests adjourn to a nearby apartment to enjoy “a night of having sex”. The next morning the scandalized narrator tells us that the men celebrated Mass and we see them donning their vestments and kissing the host -- a clock shows us that, horror of horrors! it’s not even morning but about 3:30 in the afternoon, apparently the hour that homosexual priests arise from their beds of lust to intone their hypocritical Masses. At this point, the film threatens to collapse into incoherence: is homosexuality evil or just another sexual inclination or is the crime supposed to be hypocrisy or what exactly? (It’s as if the sequence was shot a decade ago when homosexuality was still regarded as criminal -- how quickly mores have changed!) In fact, the images of weary-looking priests donning their clerical costumes and, with all sincerity it seems, touching the lunar-white host to their lips seem rather touching to me -- after all, we’re sinners each and everyone of us and that doesn’t excuse us from doing our priestly duties if that is our vocation. There’s another notable sequence, infuriating in its own way: one after another victims of child sexual abuse approach a microphone and, sobbing and gibbering, heap abuse on a bureaucratic-looking priest flanked by an absolutely callous harridan, presumably a lawyer, who is chewing gum with great bovine motions of her jaws. The show even has a plot of a kind, the gentle saintly Marxist, Pope Frances cast into this den of vipers and money-changers, threatened, it seems, with assassination, and, his face goofy with a mild, beatific grin, blessing his flock as he naively promotes reform. You hope that the new kid in town will transform this savage institution and its awful curia. But its an uphill struggle and what can one man, no matter how virtuous, do against this nightmarish and entrenched ancient corruption. It’s righteous hokum, Capra-esque, a little bit like “Mr. Smith goes to Washington" but wonderfully entertaining.

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