Sins of the Brother

Current-events inspired movies usually fail to live up to the drama that provoked them. In part, that's because they usually appear on television, and they're usually hackwork. The Boys of St. Vincent is a glorious, albeit horrifying, exception to this rule, even though it, too, first appeared on the small screen. This was Canadian television, however. Even so, it was apparently no easy matter to get the CBC to air this daunting, even if fictionalized, expose of sexual abuse inside a Catholic orphanage.

The director, John N. Smith, was inspired by an actual case of an apparently well-loved clergyman arrested for sexually abusing minors in a small, Newfoundland town. Smith's imaginings on the subject are so vivid that you'd swear he filmed straight from the trial transcripts.

Though the entire orphanage is subject to the predatory members of the All Saints Brothers who run it, part one of the film focuses on the head of the orphanage, Brother Lavin (Henry Czerny), and the gruesome attentions he pays to one ten-year-old boy, Kevin (Johnny Morina). Early on, the boy decides he can't take it anymore and escapes, only to be returned by the police. Brother Lavin then puts Kevin on his lap and tells him to think of him and the church as his mother. When he pulls the boy's shirt off and begins kissing his bare chest, the boy responds, heroically, "I only have one mother and she's dead. You aren't my mother." Only now comes the terrible beating we've been dreading since the terrible story began.

And that's not even the most painful scene. That comes near the end of part one, when the boys finally screw up their courage to tell the police about how they've been abused. As the boys talk, Smith visualizes the horrors they've lived through, and leaves very little to the imagination. This is a scene of such pity and terror that I couldn't watch it without tears.

Part two picks up the story 15 years later, when the adults are finally brought to trial. Astonishingly, this section opens with Brother Lavin, now defrocked, and the life he's made for himself -- yes, wife and two kids. Part two's power comes almost entirely from the attempt to understand this tormented, as well as tormenting, man.

The film isn't as successful when it turns to the now grown children, whose lives are pitiable, but predictably so. Most reviewers have found part two the stronger; I can't agree. But in any event, this passionately horrifying story, and its finally compassionate look into the roots of human brokenness, is absolutely unforgettable.

-- David Theis

The Boys of St. Vincent.
With Henry Czerny and Johnny Morina. At the Rice Media Center. Part one, Friday, September 23 and Saturday, September 24. Part two, Sunday, September 25.

Not rated.
90 minutes each.

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