We just finished delivering Judge Neal Solon from Avarice, and (sigh) now he's on about Evil.
Innocence and faith betrayed…
A respected documentary filmmaker recently told me that to win an Academy Award she would have to make a film that focused on either children or sex. This is clearly overstated, but it's not hard to see where she might get this impression. Stories about children and sex frequently gain publicity through the sensationalism that surrounds them. This filmmaker went on to say that, often, mediocre documentaries win prestigious awards that they would not have otherwise have won because of their sensational or timely subject matter.
It would be easy to apply this thought process to a film like Deliver Us From Evil. It deals with sex and children. On top of that, it deals with scandal that has been in and out of the news for years. Yet to dismiss the film as a work of sensationalism would do it a great disservice. Just because films about sex or children (even penguin sex and children) seem to get disproportionate attention doesn't mean that all such films are unworthy.
Though its subjects may be sensational, Deliver Us From Evil is not a sensationalistic film. It is a thoughtful and frightening portrait of a man whose monstrous choices left an indelible mark on the lives of those who knew him.
Facts of the Case
Oliver O'Grady was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in Ireland in the 1960s. In 1971, he was installed as a priest in a church in Lodi, California. O'Grady seemed to have no trouble winning the hearts of the faithful, quickly becoming a staple in many households and being welcomed into families throughout his diocese. Over the next two decade, O'Grady would use this goodwill and the trust placed in him as a man of the cloth to molest and rape innocent children. Each time his trespasses were discovered, the church did nothing more than quiet the howling families and discretely transfer O'Grady to another post where he was always in contact with children—and where he often had more power than in the job he'd just lost.
As a documentary about power relationships, betrayal, and institutional indifference, Deliver Us From Evil clearly presents facts and evidence to support the case it is trying to make. But the film is most effective when the people in it are telling stories, regardless of whether they are supported by the facts. In these moments, the film delivers its message through raw emotion. Even the scenes of people who present themselves as emotionless gain emotional power through their stark contrast with the emotional moments before or after.
The anger and horror personified by O'Grady's victims and their families is palpable and visceral. When Bob Jyono, a Catholic convert from O'Grady's first parish in California, recounts how he unwittingly gave the priest access to his daughter only to find out years later that he had repeatedly molested and raped the pre-teen girl, the experience is almost unwatchable. Jyono's rage and pain are almost unbearable. The man has been stripped not only of his faith, but also of his sense of worth as a father and a protector. He has seen the thing that matters most to him in the world defiled and suffering because he chose to trust another man.
The Church, on the other hand, seems almost indifferent to what happened. O'Grady's former boss, Cardinal Roger Mahoney (then a Bishop), coolly denies having had any knowledge of O'Grady's actions in taped legal depositions, though there is substantial evidence to the contrary. O'Grady seems to expect that his actions can be easily forgotten—that his victims should accept that what he did to them is in the past. He revels in reliving the height of his power and implies that the blame for what happened to many of the children lies with those above him. They did nothing to stop him, despite several cries for help from victims and even from O'Grady himself. With few exceptions, the men who represent the Church seem calculating and either cold or child-like.
Director Amy Berg, despite her obvious distaste for O'Grady, makes a concerted effort to include his side of the story—both for the sake of equity and to make it clear just how deluded and out-of-touch the Church officials are. Yet in spite of her best efforts and the absolutely convincing nature of her story, there are moments in Deliver Us From Evil which reveal that documentary is not the same as truth. The first are some constructed scenes where O'Grady stands within mere yards of young children. While O'Grady's crossing paths with children is unavoidable (though he now lives free in his native Ireland), it is unlikely that these scenes are as incidental as their inclusion implies. They are the only times in the film that O'Grady is seen anywhere other than sitting in a chair being interviewed, and it is improbably that O'Grady would choose to lean on a fence overlooking a playground during his interview.
The second, more egregious, and equally unnecessary distortion is a letter from a concerned husband and father to Cardinal Mahoney regarding O'Grady's conduct. The letter is shown briefly onscreen and then quickly overlain with enlarged excerpts in the style often seen in primetime news magazines. The excerpts and the accompanying voiceover imply that the letter is about child abuse, but it is not. If one reads the letter, it is clear that it is about the father's concern that O'Grady is encroaching on his family life and filling his wife's head with skewed ideas such as annulment, though O'Grady himself knows nothing of the practical life of a married person. Though abuse later took place in the household (and, in essence, the father was watching O'Grady lay the groundwork), providing this letter as proof of Cardinal Mahoney's enablement is deceptive.
Why Berg included either of these sequences is unclear. The film and its case against the Church are strong enough without them. They only highlight the inherent fallibility of film and of storytelling and give those watching the film with a critical eye reason to question the filmmaker's partiality. Still, it's hard to argue with the rest of Berg's case, and once the victims of O'Grady's crimes appear on screen, it is impossible not to forget minor quibbles with choices of filmmaking technique.
Lionsgate's DVD presentation of Deliver Us From Evil is outstanding. The film is in its original aspect ratio and looks clean and crisp, maintaining a relatively high standard even when Berg is using old court deposition footage. The audio tracks, too, are crystal clear. Both the visuals and audio stand out when they are meant to and, otherwise, present the story clearly and without distraction—just as a DVD should.
The extra features, however, really make the disc stand out. Berg and Matthew Cooke, her editor and co-producer, provide an engaging feature-length commentary. Unlike most commentaries, this one will inherently appeal to anyone interested in the film. The duo uses the commentary to extend the story beyond what fit into the final cut of the film and to interject the personal responses that they minimized in the film itself. It models how a commentary should be used differently for a non-fiction film than for a narrative one.
The other extras also extend the story and the breadth of the viewer's understanding. Deleted scenes featuring nearly everyone in the film present fascinating information with very little overlap, and each is accompanied by an optional commentary track from Berg or Cooke. There is even a series of deleted scenes featuring one Church scholar comparing the words of the Bible and the interpretations and implementation of the Catholic Church. As with most of the commentary, this is a collection of fascinating information that Berg and Cooke knew should be shared but that didn't have a place in the film.
Though its subject matter may discourage most from seeing it, Deliver Us From Evil should be seen. This history should not be ignored, nor forgotten. The film well-made, necessary, and deeply affecting. Deliver Us From Evil is the rare award nominee that exceeds expectations. See it.
Not guilty, though for O'Grady and his ilk, God himself is judge.
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Scales of Justice
• Feature-length commentary with director Amy Berg and editor Matthew Cooke
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