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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Code of Conspiracy
by Donald Levit

After Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible and dropped out on the Elia Kazan project, Budd Schulberg scripted On the Waterfront from a story based on Malcolm Johnson’s Pulitzer Prize twenty-four-part New York Sun exposé. Many regarded this film as the writer and director’s self-vindication for having named names before HUAC, breaking the often cited Code of Silence. The semi-thriller about organizational corruption plays on martyrdom and atonement, as Terry Malloy goes from Judas- to Christ-figure, where technique and performance combine in magnificent, volatile, emotional story.

Début writer-director John Deery’s Conspiracy of Silence, a parallel “controversial thriller . . . [about] The Catholic Church covering up its own corruption, lies, deceit,” however, does not go beyond polemic. The events may be too contemporary and the subject too close to the soul, but story is overwhelmed by harangue. In effect, the message is the movie, so plot never develops further than a plea for reform of doctrine and hierarchical structure.

The good characters are decent folk, the bad hypocritically nasty, and you just know that in the crunch the right people will get off the fence on the right side. That the film closes with a TV debate -- hosted by Ireland’s Gay Byrne as himself -- and straight reading of a letter from beyond the grave, is indicative of the non-dramatic nature of the whole. Even a Trinity “professor” (Patrick Waldron) drops by, to lecture small- and big- screen audiences that priests were allowed to marry until the twelfth century.

An opening teaser shows the Vatican Special Council Meeting interrupted by Irish Father Frank Sweeney (Patrick Lynch), who flashes a “The Church Has AIDS” card, decries Rome’s do-nothing policy on homosexuality, and is hustled away into a car. Three years later, at St. Saviour’s in beautiful summer Ireland -- actual filming was in Cornwall -- young Daniel McLaughlin (Jonathan Forbes) prepares for the priesthood, is a crack hurling player, and suppresses thoughts of Sinéad (Catherine Walker), the faithful girl left behind for the call to his vocation. In this country with its religions of Church, music and drinking, the seminarians still mix with pub crawlers, talk of sex, brawl, and lace their speech with profanities.

Though even here on St. Patrick’s snakeless island the Church is losing influence and priests -- 100,000 of the latter in twenty-five years, says an end title -- Daniel’s rejection of upperclassman Noel Kinahan’s (Owen McDonnell) physical advances is misinterpreted, and next morning both young candidates are expelled by rector Cahill (Sean McGinley).

Flashes of the Vatican’s hush-up in his mind, haunted Father Sweeney prays before blowing out his brains. On the scene, Bishop Michael Quinn (Jim Norton) brushes aside The Galcranagh Gazette’s David Foley (Jason Barry), but the reporter continues to investigate and, interviewing clergy as well as ex-priests, publishes the first of a series, “Suicide Priest Had HIV.” Seminary officials desperately seek to close ranks, sweep secrets under the carpet, and prevent word of the goings-on from reaching Rome.

Daniel, too, has spoken with the newsman, but at home his suddenly at-loose-ends life is the source of obscene bickering among siblings and especially parents, with his father John’s (Niall O’Brien) shot at a European farming grant ruined by the son’s expulsion. Rumors and accusations circulate, as scandal threatens to extend high into the Vatican itself. Squashed in the local press, Foley’s next article appears in the national Irish Times. Foley and Daniel will have to make difficult decisions as matters come to a head and, amidst threats, blackmail, promises of preferment, and transfers within the rural clergy, they are invited to be guests on television’s “Afternoon Live.”

Although the mixed veteran and newcomer cast’s accents gradually become less opaque, it still proves hard to keep the many characters’ names together with their faces. Complexity of intrigue and scheming can finally be more or less boiled down, but, admitting that what got him through was being “absolutely committed and passionate about it,” Deery has produced what is less a movie than a committed and passionate diatribe in favor of abolishing priestly celibacy. 

(Released by Watch Entertainment; not rated by MPAA.)

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