We'll get to Brad and Will and Russell in a moment, but first we need to pay our respects to Deliver Us From Evil. It may be the least publicized and most obscure of the seven titles covered this week, but it also happens to be the best.
A documentary with the power to affect even the most jaded of moviegoers, this feature-length expose from former CNN investigative journalist Amy Berg centers on Oliver O'Grady, a priest who over the course of three decades managed to sexually molest dozens -- some say hundreds -- of children throughout the state of California (his youngest victim was nine months old). In a perfect world, a bullet would have been put in his brain a long time ago; instead, O'Grady served seven years in prison and is now leading a peaceful life in his native Ireland. This is where Berg caught up with O'Grady, and one of the strengths of the picture is the complete access she had in being able to interview her subject at length. The scenes in which O'Grady waves off his past crimes as little more than youthful indiscretions -- he chuckles a lot when talking about the past -- are deeply disturbing, and his amusement while recollecting his former escapades belie his feeble claims that he's sorry for his actions and seeks forgiveness.
Had Deliver Us From Evil merely focused on O'Grady, it would still be an effective piece, yet what makes it something special is Berg's insistence on moving past the pedophile priest and examining the other, equally culpable villains of the story: the Catholic Church superiors who knew of O'Grady's crimes yet did nothing to stop his rampage (their solution was to continuously move him from one parish to another, thereby always supplying him with a fresh batch of children). Berg doesn't rely on hearsay to reveal these bishops as hypocritical monsters; she doesn't need to, since their filmed testimony during courtroom depositions exposes them as unfeeling, misogynistic (since most of O'Grady's victims were female, they dismissed O'Grady's actions as normal sexual curiosity) and, despite their profession, about as far from the guiding principles of Christianity as one can get. (Nauseating footnote: One of these creeps, the power-hungry Roger Mahony, is currently the Archbishop of Los Angeles.)
Berg also details the efforts of true Christians like Father Tom Doyle to fight for the rights of the victims -- a battle that has repeatedly led the Church to censure or demote Doyle -- and shows how the trail of denial and wrongdoing leads all the way to the Vatican. Yet for all of Berg's research and fact-finding, the most powerful sequences are the unscripted ones, the moments when O'Grady's now-grown victims and their family members express their rage at this child molester and their frustration at the Catholic hierarchy that repeatedly placed the institution's image over the welfare of the children. Especially difficult to watch is the anguish of Bob Jyono, whose daughter Ann was abused for several years by "Father Ollie" at a very young age. Mr. Jyono doesn't mince words, believing "molesting" doesn't begin to describe what O'Grady did to his offspring. "He raped her!" he bellows, tears flowing down his cheeks. In a later scene, Mr. Jyono goes so far as to denounce God, a declaration that causes Ann, still a believer despite her trauma, to begin bawling. It's a heartbreaking moment, and as we witness how these people's lives have been shattered by men who profess to work for the glory of God, we come to realize that even eternal damnation isn't punishment enough for some people.
AN AWARD WINNER at Cannes and an early favorite for Oscar enshrinement, Babel arrives courtesy of director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu and writer Guillermo Arriaga, the same team that previously gave us 21 Grams and Amores Perros. Like their past efforts, Babel is a gloom-and-doom dissection of society, whipping between various characters and their interconnected storylines. Certainly, this is the duo's most ambitious undertaking, yet for all its scattered strengths, it's also the least satisfying, hampered by a structure that feels schematic rather than organic.
By the very nature of the competing story strands and arcs, all three of the pair's films have risked coming across as cinematic jigsaw puzzles, more interested in moving around pieces until they fit rather than in investing emotionally in the characters. But both 21 Grams and Amores Perros featured a haunting humanity -- to say nothing of more developed characters -- that's often missing here. I have no doubt that Iñárritu and Arriaga were sincere as they set about tackling the big issues in this latest film, but in this instance, their reach exceeds their grasp.
Their main topic here is the lack of communication that exists between people, a concept already beautifully deconstructed by Robert Altman in his 1993 gem Short Cuts. But whereas Altman focused exclusively on Los Angelenos, Iñárritu and Arriaga go global, employing the butterfly effect to show how the consequences of a specific action can be felt around the world. In one plot strand, a Moroccan goat herder (Mustapha Rachidi) buys a used rifle and gives it to his two sons with the order to shoot any jackals that threaten the herd. In a second storyline, a vacationing American couple (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett) are plunged into a nightmare when the wife is accidentally shot by one of the aforementioned young boys, who was merely trying to gauge the distance a bullet can travel. In another, the American couple's two children are hauled over the U.S.-Mexico border by their nanny (Adriana Barraza), whose decision to attend her son's wedding looks ill-informed once she experiences difficulty crossing back to our side. And in the final story, a deaf teenage girl (Rinko Kikuchi) in Tokyo grows increasingly frustrated as she's unable to find any male who's willing to provide her with love and compassion.