This review of “Procession” was first published on Nov. 9.
If, as Roger Ebert famously claimed, movies are “like a machine that generates empathy” for the people who view them, then “Procession” argues that they can also be a machine that generates healing for those who make them.
Robert Greene’s documentary follows a group of six Midwestern men sexually abused as children by members of the Catholic church; the men agree to write, direct, and in some cases act in short films in order to explicitly address their traumas. A chronicle of not one but multiple acts of catharsis captured through an seemingly unconventional artistic exercise, Greene’s film explores not just the ability of art to repair emotional and sometimes physical injuries but also the resiliency of the human spirit and the solidarity of a group of individuals collaborating to provide comfort for themselves and each other through shared, unimaginable pain.
The film opens with a slightly stilted dramatization of a baptism that culminates in the attendant altar boy fleeing to the church balcony after dropping a thurible during the ceremony. The decision to open with part of one entry in what becomes an anthology or series of vignettes created entirely by six victims of Catholic sexual abuse creates inauspicious expectations for Greene’s ability to capture the therapeutic powers of these short films, much less the artistic legitimacy of their efforts.
But the choice quickly proves to be less an act of misdirection than a reminder of the ways that stories can carry different weights and meanings to the people who see them, much less the people who tell them, especially when the ambition of these unpracticed artists makes up in vitality for what they may lack in technique or skill.
Among the six men profiled in the film, only Dan Laurine has any formal filmmaking bona fides, as a Kansas City–based location scout and production manager. But from Mike Foreman’s perpetual anger to Tom Viviano’s gregarious commitment to acting in other survivors’ stories until he can achieve the legal validation to tell his own, all of them offer unique points of view that immediately prove transformative to both them and the audience as they come up with scenes and conceits as sophisticated and thematically resonant as any by a seasoned Hollywood screenwriter.
Enlisting a young and extraordinarily well-adjusted actor named Terrick Trobough to play all of their childhood counterparts, each man taps into his own pain with a specificity and fearlessness that is instantly admirable and eventually almost frightening in its vulnerability. Where Viviano and Sandridge seem healthier or less burdened by their own victimization, they help the ones less capable of facing pain as they recreate it in three dimensions. While directing a scene (which he experienced) in a confession booth, Joe Eldred shivers with terror and eventually asks Sandridge to feed the actors dialogue he can’t say out loud.
For Eldred, the journey to recreate his abuse leads him to the lakeside home where priests brought him and other boys for abuse and, eventually, to pen a letter to his childhood self. For Laurine, it forces him to summon memories he suppressed of a trail located between that lake and the house where he broke a fishing rod, a transgression that his abuser exploited; it also instigates a reconciliation with his estranged brother, who was also abused. Through Greene’s documentation of the creative and therapeutic process, Foreman not only exposes his coping mechanisms — the alienation and ritual that has come to define his adult life — but vents his anger at a system that failed him as a child and manipulated him and his mother to dismiss the crimes committed.
Foreman’s anger proves to be one of the most galvanizing elements of the process, as much as anything because he gives voice to the incredulity that comes in response to the complicity of the Catholic church and, eventually, the other adults and even parents that ignored these children’s pain and abuse in the name of religious devotion. But one of the most deft and important touches is the way that Greene remains outside and unobtrusive to the therapeutic exercise, as a sort of metatextual version of the “do no harm” ethos of the therapists and support people who are there to shepherd the men through their stories.
Despite their intended purpose, these artistic explorations frequently seem in danger of re-traumatizing these budding auteurs, but Greene, the mental health professionals involved, and ultimately their fellow survivors always pump the brakes if there’s any hesitation or anxiety that comes from, well, reenacting some of the worst moments of their lives.
What ends up happening in some cases seems almost like an improbable or theatrical emotional payoff; after one of the men visits a key location, nightmares that have plagued him since adolescence stop virtually overnight. In others, the men get to let out their artistic impulses in clumsy ways that lead to more powerful acts and discoveries, as when one film that recreates a room where abuse happened ends with its destruction with a sledgehammer.
More than anything, the film showcases the different, indirect, or unconventional ways that individuals are able to address, acknowledge, and try to assuage the traumas that they have suffered — in this case, by broadcasting it to the world in some short films that turn out to be pretty polished, given the budgets of the productions and limited filmmaking experiences of their creators.
“Procession” works for viewers in precisely the same way that some formulaic or conventional fiction film touches unexpectedly on some idea, theme, or moment that connects to something deeper within them. The difference is that the pain of these men is authentic, and their success in addressing it is real, offering a powerful reminder that, in art and life alike, sometimes the best ending to a story isn’t always the one that just makes us feel happy, but the one that helps to make us feel better.
“Procession” opens Friday in New York and on Netflix on Nov. 19.