Cinema » Cinema Feature

Painful Reality

Cameras follow as a man confronts the church who allowed him to be abused

by

comment
Twist of Faith, director Kirby Dick's documentary about the sexual abuse of teenagers by an Ohio priest, made me think about what makes movies so compelling. Like most people, I adore big ol' Hollywood blockbusters, because they indulge the audience in a fantasy where goodness defeats evil. And not just defeats it, but really humiliates it and makes it say it's sorry and that from now on, it won't be evil so much as vaguely malign or perhaps dead.

Of course, that's also what's wrong with Hollywood blockbusters (and Hollywood lacklusters as well, for that matter): They're too clear-cut and simplistic. In the real world, things are never so black and white. Like, I bet Goebbels was exactly the guy to go to for a big hug, and that Stalin never failed to call his mom on her birthday.

Or maybe there really is evil in the world. Twist of Faith takes a look at what can happen when evil is not only allowed to run unchecked, but is actually given an expense account and the best lawyers money can buy.

Dick begins his film with the videotaped deposition of former priest Dennis Gray, who, on top of presenting God's sacraments, presented his penis into the mouths of a number of teenagers who had been placed under his loving care. The focus of the film then shifts to Tony Comes, a 34-year-old firefighter, husband and father who is trying to deal with finding out that Gray has moved into his neighborhood, which wouldn't be such a big deal if Gray hadn't made a habit of repeatedly raping Comes 20 years earlier.

The film then follows Comes' attempts to get the church to apologize to him for the sins of subjecting him to rape, paying his rapist, and covering up his and a number of other rapes. It would be interesting if, in the course of this, Dick showed that Dennis Gray wasn't just a pedophile, but also a person who was wounded or in some ways caring or somehow more complex than the caricature of the abusive criminal.

But Kirby is only able to include Gray's taped deposition, and in that, Gray doesn't come off as terribly human at all. He seems sociopathically cool and reserved, and when asked if he thinks inserting his penis into a boy's mouth could cause long-term harm to that boy, he says "yes," and then takes it back, insisting that the answer is "no." There's just nothing about him, as presented in this film, that makes Gray seem anything but an epitome of insensate evil.

Which is sort of interesting, because the usual documentary tack is to show a world that's too complex for the simple, plot-driven formula of the standard romance, comedy or action film. But Dick isn't going to find that complexity in a man whose hobbies include torturing children and ruining their lives.

Instead, he finds it in Tony Comes, who starts the film seeming like the greatest super-dad ever invented. Not only is his job heroic; his general attitude is so stand-up that it's hard to find any fault with him.

Then he encounters Gray for the first time since he was a teenager, and slowly, he becomes unhinged. He can't sleep; he becomes demanding, tearful and difficult, and, in short, the opposite of the manly firefighter that he had initially seemed. Of course, that's the kind of thing that can happen to you when your rapist moves in five doors down from you.

Still, Comes is the perfect film hero in many ways: His motives seem pure, as he's not interested in a cash settlement from the diocese, but rather in an explicit apology and the institution of safeguards against any further abuse. And when he goes to meetings with other abuse survivors, he comes across as extremely compassionate in freely accepting lifestyles that conservative Catholics have vocally condemned.

In befriending a gay man who was abused by the same priest, Comes talks about his own shame at having engaged in a homosexual act without ever being judgmental towards his new friend. He even shows support and sympathy when the man discusses his own difficulties in finding fulfilling homosexual relationships after having been abused.

Meanwhile, the Catholic church isn't being very helpful, and they invoke all kinds of lies and evasions while employing very high-priced lawyers to fend of Comes' legal challenges. Which is sort of interesting: While the church is more than willing to say that there's no possibility for any moral sanction in regard to what two consenting, gay adults do, they really go out of their way to find a loophole when it come to raping kids.

Watching Comes twist as the church he grew up with and dedicated himself to treats him like something stuck to the bottom of its enormous, black shoe is incredibly difficult. You'll want to bring about two dozen hankies and a handful of mood elevators to this film, because it'll wring pretty much every tear out of your body. In that regard, it's every bit as manipulative as the worst Hollywood melodrama, but it really has no choice: The story is true; the perspective is valid, and there's no way to present this tale except as painfully tragic. It's that rare case where reality is more black-and-white, more clear in its conflict, and more deeply affecting than any fictional drama.

Add a comment