Boston is the microcosm for a world-wide phenomenon, forged in a culture of secrecy. Five reporters at the turn of the twenty-first century are searching beyond tabloid trash and their new focus is church molestation, though there is nothing new about it. As their interrogations begin to climax, a resonant theme of shame permeates their endeavour: fifteen years of abuse paralleled by fifteen years of collaborative cover-ups in league with the Church. Spotlight are simply trying to cauterise a gaping, decades-old wound, caused by this “recognisable psychiatric phenomenon.”
The tremors of the institution’s steel-grip on society – its parochial influence and therefore impact on law-courts – is what makes this film so shocking. Despite appearances the people are not ignorant; they are simply silent, which mimics ignorance. Church bureaucracy is considered too strong, but cracks have been forming, which Spotlight aims to exploit.
Legal language, journalistic colloquialisms and religious garb make subtitles necessary in this film. Words such as ‘folo’ feature regularly, which without any linguistic context (aka subtitles) confuses the audience. Similarly, the complicated cast of characters make it difficult to distinguish who is being discussed: lawyer, paedophile, priest? Sometimes it is a slow-going sludge. This is the gist of a cardinal but complicated period of journalistic triumph:
Stephen Tucci plays Garabedian, a lawyer who is representing eighty-four victims, or ‘survivors’. He is approached by Mark Ruffalo’s character, Mike Rezendes, who persuades him to ask his clients to be interviewed and end the culture of secrecy which has protected the Church for so long, something which is established in the opening prologue set in the 1980’s. The sensitive side of such a request is handled delicately, as are the details of the molestation.
Cardinal Law, the charming Archbishop emeritus of Boston who is investigated by Spotlight, is a character of contradictions: he is also a clever coincidence, which the connotations of his name enforces. Cardinals should work to enforce moral law, something he abuses. Similarly, the gravity of his name as ‘Law’, which is also incidentally a metaphor for his power, demonstrates the influence of the Church and lends some insight into why 6% of the priesthood got away with their paedophilic behaviour (the film’s statistic) and simultaneously escaped with their reputations untarnished. In Spotlight, this is engrained in theology: the body and the spirit are separate entities. One pivotal scene is when Rachel McAdams’ character, Sacha Pfeiffer, approaches a priest who went on ‘sick leave’, the Church’s synonym for abuser. An old man, he believed he had liberated, not violated, the children, vulnerable beings who were preyed upon for their age, indiscriminate of gender, and who often came from broken backgrounds. Perhaps this is the spiel spouted at the treatment centres priests on ‘sick leave’ went to, in order to indoctrinate them into justifying their behaviour.
The plot is the fore-runner here: the characters are understated, mere canvases, but this works to the benefit of the film. Unfortunately, Ruffalo’s East Boston accent distracts from the conviction of it: the protagonist constantly pouting unnaturally can be disconcerting, though supports Mike’s fierce emotional reaction in times of climax. Liev Schreiber’s Marty Baron, newly installed editor of The Globe, the newspaper which Spotlight writes for, is the most laconic of the cast, his matter-of-fact approach benefitting Spotlight’s investigation because he is an insensitive force driven by the outcome, not the painful content. The other characters are merely fillers in my opinion, although Walter Robinson, editor of Spotlight, occasionally comes to the fore, notably towards the end. He is critical to educate the audience on the extent of the secrecy and, mutually, the extent of the phenomenon, with many of his friends in the legal sector aware of the violations, but unable to take action due to the confidential nature of their job.
A major criticism of mine is the lack of subtlety of the cinematography: at one point, we see a playground in front of a church, while a survivor is telling his story. Instead of leaving this to be a symbolic reference, demonstrating the visual discourse of Catholic worship, it is explicitly mentioned in dialogue. This ruins the culture of secrecy which Spotlight endorses, its mention contradicting the ‘pretend ignorance’ of the people.
As the length of this article attests, Spotlight is not a straightforward or easy piece of cinema. It is a trinity of elements, legal, journalistic and religious, which are united by the abstract of shame. Understand who the characters are, chess-pieces in the Church’s cover-up, and you understand the film. This is reinforced in the closing segment: Cardinal Law, publicly shamed, was actually reinstated following his resignation as Archbishop emeritus of Boston. He moved to Rome and became Archpriest of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore until 2011, which in itself demonstrates how dangerously central the Church’s corrupt cover-up went. My use of past-tense is inaccurate: Spotlight has revealed it to be a present and prevalent issue, which the Catholic Church refuses to punish. The end result is inescapable: you leave firmly, undeniably, disillusioned.