Ambitious, meticulously made but ultimately refracted through too many characters, Showtime’s exploration of how the Catholic Church mishandled the issue of pedophile priests is surely provocative but less than wholly satisfying. Perhaps that’s because there are three or four movies here, and the distillation of David France’s book yields elements of each without fully developing any of them. First-rate performances and compelling subject matter still make for a watchable yarn, but “Our Fathers” seems unlikely to bestow the kind of creative valediction the pay service covets.
Director Dan Curtis and writer Thomas Michael Donnelly exhibit admirable restraint in conveying the depth of the predatory clergy scandal that stunned Boston, capturing victims’ lingering pain without depicting it graphically. In several flashbacks, grown men with haunted visages recall horrifying moments from their youth when a seemingly friendly priest got them alone, secure that no one would believe their claims even if they dared utter them.
The movie incorporates some of those survivor-of-abuse tales, as embodied by Daniel Baldwin and “The Wire’s” Chris Bauer, yet they are but part of the story. At the ostensible core is Ted Danson as attorney Mitchell Garabedian, who represents a lawsuit against the church and Cardinal Bernard Law (Christopher Plummer), who shuttled the offending priests from parish to parish, allowing them to victimize other children.
“Law knew but did nothing. It’s huge,” notes a Boston Globe reporter.
The Globe, too, is a minor player by virtue of its initial reluctance to take on the church, as is the ever-brilliant Brian Dennehy in a knockout perf as an outspoken priest who uses the pulpit to denounce Law’s leadership. “Predators in holy vestments. Wolves, not shepherds!” he thunders.
Even then, though, other stories are exposed but barely explored. Short shrift is given to the military priest who figures prominently in Garabedian’s case, the irate mother (Ellen Burstyn) whose sons were molested and internal church politics — extending all the way to the rationale of Pope John Paul II (played by Jan Rubes, the Amish patriarch in “Witness”) in allowing Law to continue.
In short, it’s the kind of movie that ends with a lengthy scroll about what ultimately happened to various characters because there’s nothing else really to tie all its threads together. As such, the movie bogs down a bit in its last third, despite the fine work by a solid cast.
Although it’s understandable why the filmmakers would want to provide a sense of the scandal’s breadth, greater focus would have surely helped — whethery by zeroing in on the lawyers, the church, the newspaper or the victims.
As it is, power still resonates from this disturbing story and the political sensitivities that make a pay channel uniquely qualified to relate it. Yet in doing so from every conceivable angle, “Our Fathers” reveals that when it comes to exposing a painful truth, there’s not always strength in numbers.