Tom McCarthy’s Oscar-winning Spotlight is a stirring tribute to the Boston Globe reporters who exposed the scourge of sexual abuse perpetrated (and covered up) by the Catholic Church, but what it fails to fully evoke is the life-altering trauma suffered by the victims of the church’s monstrous priests and bishops. Those individuals’ harrowing stories are the heart of Procession, a masterful new documentary from Robert Greene that charts the efforts of six Midwestern men to cope with their appalling childhood ordeals through the prism of cinematic drama. As deftly constructed as it is unbearably heartbreaking, Greene’s latest is a self-conscious endeavor that uses moviemaking to understand—and grapple with—long-buried historical anguish. It’s also one of the year’s finest films.
Debuting on Netflix on Nov. 19 (following a limited theatrical run beginning on Nov. 12), Procession is something of a companion piece to Greene’s Bisbee ’17, with which it shares an interest in excavating the past by way of both traditional non-fiction techniques and staged dramatic sequences. Greene’s focus is the reign of pedophilic terror perpetrated by the Catholic Church in Kansas City, Missouri. Inspired by a TV press conference held by three of his eventual subjects, Greene enlisted Michael Sandridge, Tom Viviano, Mike Foreman, Ed Gavagan, Dan Laurine, and Joe Eldred for a unique project: having them collaborate with him and drama therapist Monica Phinney on screenplays based on their specific abusive experiences, which they would then turn into films starring themselves (as well as Terrick Trobough, a brave young thespian hired to embody each man during his adolescence). The goal was to afford this sextet an artistic opportunity to face—and transcend—the horrors they endured courtesy of the religious elders they trusted as mentors, protectors, and personifications of godly righteousness and good.
Shot over the course of three years, Procession is—per its title—a document of these wounded souls’ process of wrestling with religious villainy. That’s not an easy thing for any of them to undertake, and Greene assumes a fly-on-the-wall approach in depicting their catharsis-via-creativity journeys. Even though their stories are similar, none of the men are truly alike, and the films they develop cover a wide tonal gamut, from literal to symbolic, and tender to furious. Angriest of all is unquestionably Mike, who makes clear that his rage is directed less at the priest who molested him when he was an 11-year-old boy, or even at his mother for sending him back into the predator’s home (with a chocolate cake in tow) after learning of Mike’s initial assault, than it is at the independent review board that shrugged off grown-up Mike’s accusations and then exploited legal loopholes to avoid assuming responsibility for its clergymen’s unforgivable actions.
“It is an absolute poverty the statute of limitations is the crown jewel of the Catholic Church. What does God think of that?” Mike rails more than once in Procession, including outside a church where he’s politely escorted off the premises by police. He’s not the only one who’s been forced to stomach injustice thanks to such unfair escape clauses. Ed encounters nothing but dead ends in his quest to prosecute his abuser, thereby begetting an exasperation that finally boils over at the conclusion of his own dramatized scene, “God Switches Sides.” Both his and Mike’s anger, however, pales in comparison to all of their tormented sorrow. So scarred and shaken that they’re routinely brought to tears by Greene’s endeavor, they prove damaged to an almost unthinkable degree. Consequently, their ensuing searches for the actual locations where their abuse took place—and their recreations of those physical spaces on sets or in churches—inevitably turn out to be agonizing, if eventually liberating.
Be it Dan and his semi-estranged brother Tim trying to reconnect at the same time that they hunt for the Lake Ozark house where they were violated, or Joe walking up the front steps of the summer cottage that still dominates his nightmares, Procession is a study of jagged healing through confrontation. Just as they revisit their ugliest moments in real life, they additionally do so via Greene and company’s scripted shorts. In each, Terrick assumes the role of their abused selves, and the compassion and care that he exhibits toward these men and their tales is inspiring, and mirrored by the supportive love and solidarity that they show each other. They’re kindred spirits on a joint mission to vanquish their inner demons, and it’s thus no surprise that Ed remarks, early on, that he envisions them as akin to the Avengers teaming up to destroy the forces of darkness—even though no neat-and-tidy Hollywood resolution is likely forthcoming.
Greene’s melding of the authentic and the fictional is in tune with Dan, Ed, Joe, Michael, Mike and Tom’s own struggles to reconcile their then and now, their dreams and anxieties, and their strengths and weaknesses. As in his prior works, the director utilizes boundary-straddling cinematic modes as the vehicle by which people reckon with their raw pasts and strive to hold institutions accountable for their heinous crimes. It’s non-fiction activism on a micro and macro scale, albeit guided less by a particular political agenda than by a deep sympathy for the plights of the victimized. Nonetheless, far from merely a damning censure of atrocities that can’t be fully escaped, Procession is also an act of empowerment—seeking to bestow these survivors with the support and solace that has eluded them for so long.
Courage and resolve are ultimately the dominant forces in Greene’s film, culminating with Joe’s scene “Letter to Joe,” in which he reads a message to his young self (i.e. Terrick) in order to absolve himself of the pain, guilt and misery he could never previously look at, or conquer. “Make no mistake, you are the epic hero in the story of us,” Joe states, and in its closing passages, Procession becomes a celebration of six individuals who—bound by hurt, regret, shame, and self-loathing—achieve a measure of fortitude and relief through togetherness as well as the transformative magic of the movies.