“The Boys of St. Vincent” is a powerful, sociologically and politically important two-part Canadian telefilm that is beginning to make a splash in film circles. Drama concerning the molestation of young boys in a Catholic orphanage won the grand prize at the Banff Television Festival earlier this year, and was first seen on the big screen at the Telluride Film Festival. Consolidation of the three-hour running time, along with blow up from 16mm to 35mm with an eye to a theatrical run are now being mulled.
Inspired by, but not directly based upon, an infamous case at Mount Cashel in St. John’s, Newfoundland, in the late 1980s, this fictional film has already provoked considerable controversy in Canada. This is due not only to its touchy subject matter, but to a court injunction blocking its CBC broadcast in Ontario and parts of Quebec because it might prejudice similar court cases still in progress.
Taking on such material clearly presented a daunting challenge in both the writing and performance, but the Canadian team has proven up to the task. The approach is intelligent and controlled, allowing much to remain implicit but nevertheless well understood.
Set in 1975, part one quickly establishes the physical intimacy of the St. Vincent orphanage, as well as its close ties to the local town life in Eastern Canada. The institution is presided over by the young, good-looking Brother Peter Lavin (Henry Czerny), who exhibits the expected paternalistic attitude toward his charges but also betrays a stern manner and short temper.
The first sign that things aren’t right comes when 10-year-old Kevin Reevey (Johnny Morina) is returned to St. Vincent after running away. So intensely does Lavin feel for little Kevin that he showers him with impassioned, borderline lustful embraces and kisses. But when Kevin protests, saying, “You’re not my mother,” Lavin turns on the lad and beats him.
All this would pass unnoticed except for the suspicions of the orphanage’s janitor, who spirits the terrorized kid off to the doctor. For this transgression, he is fired by the furious Lavin, but the gesture is enough to start tongues wagging and for the janitor to hire a detective to look into what might be going on at St. Vincent.
Discreet but unmistakable scenes show other Catholic Brothers sneaking into the boys’ dorm room after dark to join them in bed. When an outspoken older boy protests about what he knows has happened to his younger brother, he has his hands badly beaten as punishment, and it looks as though the Brothers’ control is so absolute that nothing can be done.
Finally, however, a police interrogation of the boys reveals a horrifying catalogue of abuse. Even when another Brother catches the heedless Lavin assaulting Kevin in the basement, all Lavin gets, along with two others, is a transfer.
Script by Des Walsh, director John N. Smith and co-producer Sam Grana sensitively plays out the power relationships among the Brothers and boys, but is also excellent at suggesting the conspiracy of silence and inaction forged by the local government and church hierarchy.
Despite the mountain of evidence, the investigation is shown as being blocked at the highest administrative level, allowing the perpetrators to get away and life at the orphanage to continue as before.
Part two picks up 15 years later. Ex-priest Lavin is living in Montreal with his wife and two boys when a cop abruptly arrives at his door to arrest him and transport him to St. Vincent to face charges of sexual assault and gross indecency and misconduct. A defiant Lavin pleads not guilty, whereupon the sad spectacle begins of lives disrupted, reputations besmirched and skeletons exhumed. The boys, now in their mid-20s, are called upon to reopen the childhood scars in order finally to nail their tormentors.
In the end, it’s a tossup as to which half is the more disturbing — the first, showing the actual abuse, or the second, detailing the possible ruination of many lives in order to see justice done.
Part one is marked by the poignant, naturalistic playing of the young boys, all of whom convey fear and pitiful deprivation. The quotidian life of both the orphanage and the town is economically suggested under Smith’s straightforward and concentrated direction, and it is commendable that such a story could be told without a trace of homophobia.
Dominating it all, however, is the central performance of Czerny as Brother Lavin. A Toronto stage actor with scant screen experience, Czerny limns the layers of authority, control and irrepressible rage within the man, suggesting deep deprivation and shortcomings in his own past that might have led him to such behavior. Striding swiftly in his long black frock, Czerny cuts a frequently terrifying figure, and he is not afraid to inject a little melodrama into the performance to help get the audience to hate him even more.
Admirably solid and irreproachable rather than dazzlingly inspired, “The Boys of St. Vincent” has a lot to keep people talking, and is one of those occasional phenomena (like the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings) that can change public awareness and perception of an issue. If it doesn’t go theatrical in the U.S., it at least deserves prominent airing on cable and PBS.