Abuse within the Catholic Church has always been a present and prominent subject matter within cinema. From sombre and affecting dramas like Doubt and The Boys Of St. Vincent to horrifying documentaries like Deliver Us From Evil and Hand Of God, the theme of authoritative misconduct among leading religious figures in their respective parishes is something that needs to be highlighted, and the medium of film seems to be one that is accessible to a wide viewership. The latest addition to the collection is Spotlight, a film that takes a searing look in to the world of Catholic child abuse, but does so from a refreshingly different and interesting angle.
Spotlight tells the true story of a team of journalists based at the Boston Globe in 2001 who, as part of a deeply secretive and dedicated project, uncover a huge statewide scandal of child abuse by priests and the subsequent cover ups undertaken by high profile figures within the Church. Led by Robby Robinson (Michael Keaton), the Spotlight team also includes Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfieffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carol (Brian d’Arcy James), and each character brings a different emotion to the narrative to portray to the audience just how far reaching and affecting a discovery like this can be. Alongside the revelatory moments that are part and parcel of any good journalistic movie, we see from Michael’s side a complete loss of faith, on Sacha’s side a deep sorrow for the effect the scandal will have on her religious grandmother, on Matt’s side a horror at the intimacy of the problem as he discovers that many named priests live nearby, and perhaps saddest of all, a feeling of regret about not discovering the truth earlier on Robby’s part. What makes Spotlight a particularly different kind of film examining abuse within the Church is that, given the plainly horrific content and subject matter, the picture operates on a very conversational and ‘professional’ level, one which completely reflects the act of journalistic investigation that lies at the heart of the narrative. That’s not to say, however, that the content does not shock to the core, because it absolutely does, and what makes the film even more powerful is the way in which the audience witness these writers grappling with their own raw emotions whilst at the same time having to maintain a level of composure that allows them to produce their best and most compelling work. Spotlight has an interesting amount to say about certain studies that have argued an uncommonly high rate of pedophilia within priesthood over any other vocation, and whilst lesser films on the topic sometimes like to portray these abusive individuals as ‘one of a kind’ monsters, the filmmakers here have not shied away from pointing the focus directly on to the Catholic Church as a whole and their remarkably worrying failings as an institution and a system. Child abuse, especially child abuse perpetrated by ‘men of God’, is a terribly tough topic to approach, but with Spotlight what we get is both a film that will reveal a tragically sad true story as well as a film that displays journalism and investigative reporting at it’s very best. If you do not want to drop everything and become a roaming reporter after this, then you haven’t been watching at all.
It would be fair to say that the majority of audience engagement in the film stems from its leading cast members, all of whom give brilliant performances reaching from different points of inspiration. As Robby, the head of the Spotlight team, Michael Keaton gives the kind of ‘captain of the ship’ performance that immediately creates a connection with viewers. His character is full of integrity and refuses to bow to mounting pressure from leading Boston figures to drop the investigation, and Keaton’s assured presence fits perfectly. Both Rachel McAdams as Sacha and Brian d’Arcy James as Matt bring their own touches of quality to the picture, with McAdams’ strong but feminine presence being the key to unlocking many of the male victim’s stories over the course of the narrative, offering a somewhat safer space for them to reveal their most vulnerable secrets. The standout performance, though, comes from Mark Ruffalo as the dedicated and quirky reporter Michael Rezendes. Rezendes does much of the heavy lifting in terms of unearthing evidence and chasing down leads throughout the plot, and Ruffalo’s characterisation of a man whose own upbringing clashes so close to home with his investigation is really nuanced and engaging. He plays Michael as a sensitive, intelligent, slightly odd yet utterly determined man who seeks nothing more than the truth and justice for those who have been wronged, and although Sylvester Stallone has been receiving most of the awards season love, Ruffalo would certainly be my personal favourite to take home the Oscar at the end of February.
Overall, Spotlight is a gripping drama that, whilst being shocking and uncomfortable in parts, tells a story that needs to be told and deserves to be told time and time again until a social, cultural and religious shift begins to occur. The journalistic angle from which the film operates puts a fresh perspective on a theme that has been explored over and over in cinema, and aside from the importance of the subject matter, you will be hard pushed to find a stronger ensemble cast this year.