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Procession 2021 Movie Review Poster Trailer Online
any current filmmakers have been expanding the art of documentaries, but none quite so boldly or originally as Robert Greene. His films, which include “Kate Plays Christine” and “Bisbee ’17,” embody a philosophy of nonfiction that reaches into the very grammar of the genre. His new film, “Procession,” which comes to Netflix on Friday, follows in that path, showing his participants developing the movie’s stories, which he then presents in the form of fictions that he directs. But “Procession” also takes this concept to more urgent extremes, because the film’s main participants are six men who, as children, were sexually assaulted by Catholic priests. In 2018, Greene, as the film relates, saw a television news report about them and their attorney, Rebecca Randles, as they came forward publicly to state their charges against the priests who’d abused them and to publicize the Church’s stonewalling of investigations. He contacted Randles and laid the groundwork for making a film—not “about” these men but with them. What this collaboration means, both in practice and emotionally, for them and for Greene—and for the art and the ethics of filmmaking itself—is the subject of “Procession.”
In effect, Greene questions the very nature of cinematic authorship. The credits of the film declare that it was made primarily by the six men: Joe Eldred, Mike Foreman, Ed Gavagan, Dan Laurine, Michael Sandridge, and Tom Viviano. Greene brings them and Randles together with Monica Phinney, a drama therapist, and shows the group working together, and teaming up in smaller units, to discuss and set the parameters for the scripted projects, which the men will write and Greene will direct. The scripts that the men produce reveal a wide range of approaches to their experiences of abuse. Sandridge crafts a story set in a church, in which he depicts a priest with evil green laser eyes and portrays his childhood self as a heroic bearer of witness. Gavagan—who dreams of telling a story like those of “Marvel superheroes vanquishing the fucking forces of darkness”—writes a horrific dramatization of his physical abuse, in the priest’s vestry. (There is nothing sexually explicit in the action.) Foreman’s two-part script first depicts the aftermath of his abuse, when his mother, unaware of what happened, bakes a cake for the predatory priest and drops a terrified but silent young Mike off at the priest’s house to deliver it; then, it reënacts (with an element of wish-fulfilling fantasy) his meeting with the Church’s “independent review board” that, in 2013, hid behind the statute of limitations to dismiss his claims.
“Procession” is a documentary about the making of these short films, in which Greene integrates idea and action, process and effect, and, along the way, probes the distinctive powers of fiction and nonfiction. The men decide that they’ll act in one another’s movies, and agree that their younger selves will all be played by one child actor, the casting of whom is a part of the film, too. (The boy who’s selected, named Terrick, is a remarkably tough-minded and steadfast performer; he has the support of his parents on the set—they act in one scene, too—and they discuss how the family decided to let him take part in the film.) But, most crucially, in preparing to work with Phinney, Greene, and one another, the men unavoidably and painfully bear witness, on camera, in unbearably sharp detail, to the abuse that they experienced—and the enduring aftermath and long-term effects of their trauma.
As Phinney explains, the clinical purpose of dramatizing trauma is “putting it out into the world” in order to “take it back in through the logical and reasonable part of our brains.” For Greene, the cinema, with its power of montage—its blend of drama and documentary, of staging and behind-the-scenes planning—offers a way to break the silence and foster cathartic bursts of self-recognition and self-recovery. To do so, he calls attention to the very question of cinematic authorship. In realizing the men’s scripted scenes, he directs with great empathy, albeit somewhat impersonally—seemingly by design. Though directing a drama usually means taking other people’s stories and inflecting them with one’s own creative vision, here Greene virtually makes himself into their instrument, while nonetheless injecting an element, a tone, that also adds a vast conceptual layer to the project. He emphasizes the melodramatic aspects of the men’s scripts, relying on expressive lighting effects, theatrically intensified performances, and exaggeratedly emotive music. The point is clear: in linking the men’s stories to the history of Hollywood movie dramas, Greene points out all the more clearly the kinds of stories that classic Hollywood didn’t tell, and connects the silences of mainstream movies with the silences that society at large long imposed concerning sexual abuse.
The essential element that distinguishes “Procession” from staged drama is its documentary aspect, the power of the film to record the making of it, the work on which the production of the scripted scenes depends. “Procession” offers some of the most extraordinary location scouting ever done on camera. The men who take part in the film have a relentless, agonized drive to revisit the specific sites where they were abused. Sandridge, who visits the church that was the place of his abuse, speaks of the “physical point” that’s crucial for each man’s confrontation with his trauma. Foreman finds the exact porch at the exact house where his mother dropped him off, and his film is shot there. Eldred finds the porch of a house where he had been victimized, but is too overwhelmed to film there. Gavagan, unable to film in the actual vestry in which he was abused, meticulously reconstructs it as a set, which he and the other men build together. The most extended and anguished site-specific search involves a complex of lake houses where Laurine and his brother, Tim, were abused, and which proves appallingly triggering for both men. After a long search, Laurine finds an exact spot: a now-overgrown path where he was subjected to a shockingly cruel manipulation. “This is the fucking path,” he says. “This is the path where I broke the fishing rod.” Tim confirms it: “This is the spot.” It’s an extraordinary echo of a moment in the greatest of all documentaries, Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah,” in which Simon Srebnik, a survivor of the extermination camp in the village of Chelmno, observes the long-bulldozed site where it was situated, and says, “This is the place.” Like “Shoah,” “Procession” does more than bear witness to atrocities; it uses the artistic power of the cinema to inscribe them in history.