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‘Procession’ Review: Filmmaking is Healing in an Extraordinary Doc on the Trauma of Catholic Church Sexual Abuse

Robert Greene's signature mode of performance-based documentary finds potent purpose in this shattering study of six abuse survivors processing their pain through art.

procession
Everett Collection

Reconstruction in documentary filmmaking is an eternally divisive technique: What some deem vivid and immediate, others find distancing and artificial, cloaking and blurring reality in the language of fiction cinema. Yet what if the reconstructions don’t just feature the documentary’s real-life subjects, but are expressly conceived and realized by them — not recreating reality so much as their lingering, haunted memories thereof? That’s a different proposition entirely, as is “Procession,” a risky, wrenching film in which celebrated docmaker Robert Greene frequently surrenders the directorial reins to his subjects and collaborators: six middle-aged, middle-American men living with the trauma of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic Church priests and clergymen.

With each of these survivors given the means and support to make an interpretive short film rooted in their decades-old experience, “Procession” is intricately woven from the amateur filmmakers’ original work, alongside Greene’s patient, empathetic observation of their creative process. The effect of these overlapping lenses is to capture both subjective personal truth and a wider, more journalistic view of a collective tragedy in the same cracked mirror; the film offers its vulnerable ensemble a form of dramatic therapy in which they ask and answer all the most troubling questions themselves.

In a less experienced or more exploitative helmer’s hands, this could have been a misguided enterprise at best. For Greene, however, “Procession” represents the most rigorous application yet of his ongoing fascination with performance as a conduit for “reality,” inasmuch as cinema acknowledges the difference. In “Actress” and “Kate Plays Christine,” the camera caught professional actors in the crevasse between their on- and off-camera selves. In Greene’s last feature, “Bisbee ’17,” amateur actors restaged an ugly episode of their Arizonan town’s history as an act of community catharsis. “Procession” logically continues this progression to civilians enacting their own personal history, though anyone expecting straightforward vérité from their short films may be stunned by the frequently radical, emotive expressionism on display.

The film opens on the 2018 Kansas City press conference that first alerted the Missouri-based Greene to the stories documented here, as attorney Rebecca Randles appeared with sexual abuse survivors Michael Sandridge, Tom Viviano and Mike Foreman — just three victims, Randles reminds us, of the many assaulted by over 230 Catholic priests known to be abusers in the KCK area. Moved by their testimony, Greene approached them with his novel idea for a collaboration. Once they agreed, three further survivors — Joe Eldred, Ed Gavagan and Dan Laurine — boarded the project, with local drama therapist Monica Phinney leading their unpredictably raw, candid workshops. Greene himself is a less visible presence in proceedings, keenly perceptive but never intrusive as he sits in on their psychological and creative deliberations.

The men, largely strangers to each other, share little beyond a common source of trauma, and their respective approaches to working through it — personally, spiritually and artistically — vary wildly. New York-based contractor Gavagan initially puts a constructively heroic spin on their collective campaign for justice (“We want to be like Marvel superheroes vanquishing the forces of justice”), though his film, “God Switches Sides,” is sober and simple, focused on the hands of priests performing holy and unholy actions. Foreman, on the other hand, is a coiled spring of vengeful, expletive-laden fury, whose tellingly named short “Blatant Lies in the Name of the Lord” gives him a platform to vent righteously at the Church review board that dismissed his case in 2013. (In this case, Greene’s project permits its subjects to amend or correct a reality that initially passed them by.)

Binding the men’s diverse cinematic statements is a remarkable young actor, Terrick Trobough, who plays their childhood proxies in each scene with a mature, porous receptiveness to their pain — even if, as he quietly admits, “it’s not my reality.” Greene’s own crew, meanwhile, serves the survivors’ films artfully but modestly, never imposing excess aesthetic polish on fragile memories: Keegan Dewitt and Dabney Morris’s glassy, nervy score, in particular, is a vital ally, its arrangements tightening and tensing according to the story being told. Two of the men hold off on directing their own films, but their contributions are stirringly felt. Viviano, unable to share his experience for legal reasons, commits fiercely as an actor to the other men’s visions, while affable location scout Laurine’s winding, uncertain search for the site of his and his brother’s childhood abuse makes for one of the film’s most purely devastating arcs.

For a film bearing so many open wounds, however, “Procession” never feels strenuously somber or despairing: It’s not hard to see why Netflix (having acquired the film following a successful debut at Telluride) was drawn to a work that leads with humanity and healing, without straining for uplift where it plainly doesn’t belong. (For one thing, the largely unsatisfying fates of the men’s abusers — some escaped, some protected, none brought fully to justice — are detailed in restrained, resigned captions.) “Procession” is, in its own elegant and uneasy way, an inspiring film, idealistically invested in cinema itself as a medium for confession, confrontation and self-expression, not least when Greene hands over the camera to other filmmakers in need of its power.

‘Procession’ Review: Filmmaking is Healing in an Extraordinary Doc on the Trauma of Catholic Church Sexual Abuse

Reviewed online, Feb. 7, 2021. (In Telluride, AFI Fest.) Running time: 119 MIN.

  • Production: (Documentary) A Netflix release of a 4th Row Films production in partnership with Concordia Studios, Impact Partners in association with Artemis Rising Foundation. Producers: Susan Bedusa, Bennett Elliott, Douglas Tirola. Executive producers: Laurene Powell-Jobs, Davis Guggenheim, Nicole Stott, Jonathan Silberberg, Jenny Raskin, Geralyn White Dreyfous, Patty Quillin, Regina K. Scully. Co-producer: Steven Murphy. Co-executive producer: Kelsey Koenig.
  • Crew: Director, editor: Robert Greene. Camera: Robert Kolodny. Music: Keegan Dewitt, Dabney Morris.
  • With: Joe Eldred, Mike Foreman, Ed Gavagan, Dan Laurine, Michael Sandridge, Tom Viviano, Terrick Trobough, Monica Phinney.