Robert Greene’s documentary centers the pain of six men haunted by child sex abuse, but struggles to see past their trauma.
The very idea of reviewing something like Procession is a task in and of itself. It’s not that it’s particularly difficult; it’s that it runs the risk of coming off less as reviewing a film than reviewing people and their realities. Am I, myself a rape survivor, to laud the subjects’ humanity that propels Robert Greene’s documentary? Of course.
But am I, a critic, to neglect the editor/director’s own choices that skew the realities of the six men Procession focuses on? I can’t say I am. To do so would ignore how it could have depicted these survivors’ stories holistically instead of in nuggets. Greene chooses the latter, and that choice lies at the center of the film’s issues.
Decades ago, members of the clergy sexually abused Joe Eldred, Mike Foreman, Dan Laurine, Ed Gavagan, Tom Viviano, and Michael Sandridge. The six all lived in the Kansas City, Missouri area, around the time of a new rash of allegations against the Catholic Church. Of course, the Church defended the perpetrators; the survivors, all the while, went through court proceedings and press conferences well into their now-middle ages. Green then reached out to their attorney, Rebecca Randles, who in turn referred them to Monica Phinney.
Phinney is a therapist, specifically a drama therapist—that is, she helps trauma survivors reach catharsis through performance. With Procession, the men write and direct scenes to literally or metaphorically recreate pivotal moments of their abuse, with child actor Terrick Trobough playing an amalgam role in each.
Most of the documentary follows the creative process and the subjects’ attempts at coping, not to the moments of retraumatization. But that’s not all, and not necessarily because of what it pointedly includes. It’s because Procession, while effective at points, is too thematically and logistically uneven in some of its key discussions.
The first and most glaring issue comes from its pacing. Here’s a film just a hair under two hours with its eye on six protagonists, and yet it doesn’t seem to have enough time to fully approach them all. It sidelines one or two of the survivors on a rotating basis for long stretches. Consequently, we don’t get a great sense of who these people are outside of their trauma. Greene provides tidbits about their current occupations, but what about their interests? The movie hints towards some of their respective coping mechanisms, but how do they play into the construct of masculinity Greene attempts to undo?
Procession, while effective at points, is too thematically and logistically uneven in some of its key discussions.
It gets to a point where an extra thirty minutes would have actually been welcome. Instead, Procession holds most of its subjects at the mercy of its runtime. If one of the men isn’t onscreen as another, Greene doesn’t depict him as much more than his pain. Foreman—and to a lesser extent, Gavagan and Laurine—are the only ones audiences get to spend enough time to read as they likely would in person. Viviano, on the other hand, gets so little of the time he deserves. He’s unable to retell his own experiences due to ongoing legal battles, but his choice to play a pedophile priest in the others’ scenes is an act one assumes must be surreal at the least. Alas, the film doesn’t explore that.
That said, Greene circumvents the lurid pitfalls the first half is seemingly teetering toward. The discussions of abuse are stark and consistent, yet they don’t hang on details, nor does Procession turn its subjects into ciphers for narrative drama. It is, in spite of its flaws, a respectful, ethically-minded piece of work.
Nothing plays as crass. It’s just that it lacks the connective tissue to flesh itself out. Those moments of tensing and tearing up—are those due to Greene’s filmmaking, or because the subject matter is so inherently triggering?
Perhaps it’s a bit of the former, and sure, it’s a good amount of the latter. But it doesn’t hit that balance frequently enough. It’s only thanks to the six men the film unsteadily tries to lift into the next section of their lives that Procession works in the capacity it does. If only Greene knew how to convey this trauma as much as they do.
Procession is currently playing in select theaters and comes to Netflix November 19th.