25 May 2007

Deliver Us From Evil

Written & Directed by: Amy Berg

Grade: C+

I can't fault writer-director Amy Berg for tackling a subject—presbyteral molestation and the subsequent Catholic cover-up—in Deliver Us From Evil that's by now old hat, since she scored a remarkable opportunity too extraordinary to pass-up: an exclusive, three day interview with the straightforward and candidly confessional Oliver O'Grady, a former priest and convicted sex abuser now living in Irish exile. But ultimately O'Grady presents Berg with quite a conundrum that she doesn't quite having the courage to confront, and which ultimately brings Deviler Us From Evil down—Oliver O'Grady is the most likeable and charismatic person in the film. When he reappears near the end, after a long hiatus from the narrative, I was happy to see him again, and yet this is a man that admittedly molested and raped probably upwards of hundreds of children over the course of his ignoble career!

O'Grady is and always was an ostensibly unassuming and non-threatening presence, "the perfect example of what a priest would be," according to the mother of one of his victims, but on the inside O'Grady is a fiend, a sociopathic pedophile who admits that nothing gets him jonesing like a child in a bathing suit. The basic story, as I said, is familiar: O'Grady is first accused of abuse in 1976 and, over the course of the next decade or two, is bounced around Central California, from Lodi to Thurlock to Stockton to San Andreas, where in every city and town it's basically the same story (until he was finally arrested and convicted in 1993): he's accused of some sort of "inappropriate touching", the victims are promised he'll be moved to a place where he won't have access to children, and the diocese moves him to a new parish where he in fact does have access to children, whom he starts molesting immediately. In the interviews, from Berg's own footage and previously recorded, decade-old depositions, O'Grady remains calmly and cooly composed, laying out the specifics of his actions and mental states as though fully aware of what he did but completely removed from the reality of his actions. (One attorney asks him if he's ever been diagnosed with dissociative disorder, to which he mockingly responds, "I'm sure I fit the category of a lot of disorders.") His demeanor is all matter-of-fact, and while it should be unsettling in a Hannibal Lechter sort of way I actually found it rather inviting; after all, this man devoted some thirty years and all of his intellectual capacities into deceiving children and their families, making them trust him, so that he could then take advantage of them to satisfy his vile urges. He's obviously always been good at manipulating people and he's doing the same thing now on camera and Berg, in the name of misguided objectivity, makes the fatal mistake of putting O'Grady on camera and not challenging him directly. For a spell, Deliver Us From Evil seems as thought it might have the potential to, however unintentionally, glorify a child rapist.

So to prevent that from happening, Berg winds up overcompensating in the other direction, resorting to shorthand emotional hokum, like long shots of teary victims set against a drippy score and staged stunts along the lines of Michael Moore—meant to elicit pity for the victims and scorn for O'Grady—rather than letting him have it or getting O'Grady to incriminate himself. The challenge to O'Grady is indirect, offered by the children he hurt who, on camera, are banal in their weepy victimhood. "He's a piece of crap, man," as the friend of one victim eloquently notes, laconically capturing the tone of the entire film. Berg's most vehement attack on Father O'Grady comes from the father of one victim, who spends the last half of the film literally screaming and crying about the pain the man caused his family; it eventually degenerates into uncomfortable exploitation, the camera lingering gratutiously, but without those scenes you'd still be thinking about what a nice man that Oliver is. He's so honest and seemingly repentent, knowing all his life that what he was doing was wrong and aware that he needed help; "I should have been removed and attended to," he admits, adding, with the inappropriate smirk he wears throughout, "I'd like if all the bishops had done that." (Or, phoenetically, "Oid like eff ahl da bishups had dun dat.")

Though of course the bishops didn't, and Deliver Us From Evil only comes alive as a film during a single reel towards the end when it engages in a fiery denigration of the Catholic Church's monarchical structure that's packed with bishops more concerned with advancing their own careers by eschewing scandal than with protecting children from rapists. (Just as it's more concerned with condemning condoms than preventing the spread of AIDS.) The film might have benefitted by taking that even farther (though in its favor it does at least find time to lay blame on the current Pope), or perhaps examining how in the hell a man as despicable as O'Grady comes across as so gosh darn likeable, but Deliver Us From Evil aspires not to be psychologically revealing and only marginally revealing of the Church's complicity, settling instead for a stream of dirty antecdotes, always shocking and gross, balanced out by the tears of those affected. It's easy to feel outraged at such a story, and even easier to exploit that outrage as a filmmaker; that's not to say that Deliver Us From Evil is an easy movie to sit through—it goes out of its way to be disgusting—but it isn't risky, challenging, or enlightening by any stretch of the imagination. "We should all be in the business of protecting children," one interviewer intones. Wow, how illuminating. Berg, who tellingly worked at 60 Minutes before becoming a filmmaker, has fashioned a news magazine piece, though with more prurient details than the FCC would ever permit, that merely parades repulsions around without ever directly confronting a sick and twisted man.


Anonymous said...

Your right that Berg never confronts the Irish priest, but she most likely didn't feel that it was necessary. In doing the research on this man she would have found that he had repeatedly confessed to his crimes (in the form of letters writen to his victims and their families) and thought that the priest would 'hang himself'.
As far as you being entranced by this charming man is a bit disturbing. Yes he was manipulative, but move than that- he just preyed on peoples belief that people invovled with the church is good. Now time has pasted and most of us know this is a lie.
You remark that when one of the people say "We should all be in the business of protecting children" that it is obvious, but guess what- very little people do that.

Clayton L. White said...

I don't think that Henry is saying that he sympathized with O'Grady, he's saying that O'Grady was a charming individual, and he was. Which is why these families never suspected him all those years. Berg's handling of the film is a bit sloppy, but the when the film ties it all into a global context near the end, it becomes something more valuable. However, I did think there were many points that Berg let slip through her fingers, and in the end a routine episode of Dateline's To Catch a Predator is more effective than this film, but I believe she was sincerely trying to give an objective viewpoint. You have to remember that coming from 60 minutes, all she knows is how to exploit her subjects, so it's quite a step up, I would say.

Anonymous said...

I agree that my being entranced by O'Grady was disturbing, but I think it was entirely Berg's fault, a direct result of her film's poor execution.

And the whole point I was trying to make was that O'Grady's confessions alone are not enough to "hang" him because it's somewhat off-set by his on-screen presence. Not confronting him was a big mistake.

I agree with you Clayton that it's valuable when she puts it all in context, but up to then and afterwards this film is just such a mess. Like I said, I don't think it's a step up from 60 Minutes, it's just dirtier!

Anonymous said...

I think that not pushing the priest was the righ thing to do, the reason why is that I witness the priest not taking responsability for his actions. He says "yes I did this, but" and the priest always expressed that he was not ultimately responsible. That to be was the worst part. Yes the church should have pulled him away from children, but he never made an effort to restrain himself. He also appeared to believe that because of his confession he was completely absolved (the invitation to the victims to come to Ireland in the end) and forgiven by God and the victims.
I think that the Berg not pushing the priest makes us as an audience work to draw a conclusion about him, his action, the church, and the current state of the world.
Do we need some one to push a child molestor to show us that they are bad?