As if thousands of half-empty collection plates and scores of sparsely inhabited seminaries were not reminder enough that the Catholic Church is in big trouble these days, the faithful must also contend with a new generation of journalists and filmmakers who seem intent on sacking Rome. Between, say, The Magdalene Sisters, which laid bare the imprisonment of generations of so-called "fallen women" in what amounted to church-run labor camps, and the ongoing exposé in the press and on TV of priestly pedophilia, it's a wonder anybody on the planet still gives up chocolate for Lent. Well, there is Mel Gibson; he's attracted quite a flock.
As current anti-Catholic outrage goes, Conspiracy of Silence is pretty weak stuff. First-time writer/director John Deery is a practicing Irish Catholic who's worried about the future of his church, not some inflamed atheist bent on destroying it, and what he produces here is little more than a schematic, 87-minute plea to cast off the priesthood's shackle of celibacy -- every word of it cloaked in a heavy brogue. Despite the film's provocative title and the portrayal of some mob tactics in a rural Irish diocese -- blackmail and kidnapping among them -- this none-too-fascinating melodrama mostly aims toward the none-too-startling conclusion that the church could beef up its anemic recruitment efforts by allowing priests to marry -- or to otherwise express their sexuality. Wow. Hold the presses.
Given Conspiracy's relatively modest agenda -- cancel celibacy, acknowledge AIDS -- its events seem awfully overwrought. A gay priest commits suicide. An appealing young seminarian, Daniel McLaughlin (Jonathan Forbes), gets expelled after he's falsely accused of a homosexual encounter with a fellow student; then he gets in a pub fight and rekindles his love affair with a local beauty named Sinead (Catherine Walker). The obligatory newspaper reporter of the piece, David Foley (Jason Barry), starts digging into the dead priest's motives and uncovers the usual array of corruption, cowardice, and hypocrisy in the church's Old Guard, as personified by a nasty, white-haired bishop named Quinn (Jim Norton). Meanwhile, moviemaker Deery dutifully paints the reform side of the picture -- the high-spirited (but unmistakably human) seminarians who playfully flip the bird and smack each other upside the head with hurling sticks before devoting themselves to St. Paul's Letters to the Thessalonians; the thoughtful visiting Jesuit (Hugh Quarsie) who makes a convincing case for revamping church policies in the 21st century; the brave, new-wave teacher who warns: "The Catholic Church is destroying itself from the inside."
If it's facts you want, it's facts you'll get. The gospel according to John Deery: The church instituted celibacy only in the 12th century -- as a way to inherit the wealth of rich priests. Mostly because of celibacy, 100,000 priests have dropped out in the last 25 years. Fine. Points taken. But are we to take seriously a film that purports to deal with the internal strife and possible demise of the Catholic Church but makes no mention at all of child abuse or the abortion debate?
What's worse, Silencedoesn't work as a thriller, which it needs and strives to be. It takes the apparent form of a mystery, but never delivers. Meanwhile, its supposed examination of the battle between iron-fisted conservatives bound to dark secrecy and forward-looking progressives who represent the church's best hope for survival comes off as tortured sociology, inhabited by stereotypes. If you're a Dubliner who's just taken the sacraments and find yourself arguing religion with friends over a pint of Guinness, maybe you'll yank a cogent fact or two out of Deery's didactic screenplay and let fly. If you're a theology grad student wondering about your place in the world, you might want to renew, as the movie tries to do, the old question of God's will versus man's suffering. But for most people, believers and nonbelievers alike, this nicely acted but terminally sincere plea for institutional reform probably won't prove any more exciting than a dry monograph or an ill-written editorial in the church bulletin. As it is, the movie concludes not with something startling or insightful, but with a TV talk show -- five or six combatants sitting in chairs under hot lights, rehashing the debate between Old and New. Clearly, John Deery means to dramatize faith and morals in the contemporary world, but he doesn't find the way, see the truth, or shed much light.
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