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Procession is a doc about the Catholic sex abuse scandal. Its approach is wholly unexpected.

The new Netflix film explores what healing really looks like.

A boy in an altar boy’s robe stands backlit by a stained glass window.
Procession digs into the process of healing from unspeakable trauma.
Courtesy of Netflix
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

The purpose of a religious community — not just the religion itself, but the group that practices it — is fairly simple, no matter the actual tenets of belief. Broken people gather, and together, they enact some rituals. They remind one another of what they believe is true. They become just a tiny bit more whole, regain just a bit of power that life’s trauma strips away. And then they go back into the world; a healthy religious community exists to bring grace to those who aren’t part of the group.

How rare it is to see that in action. Too often, in religious communities, rituals withhold healing instead of offering it. Those with power grasp for more rather than giving it away. Claims to perfect truth are bent to serve lies. People are hurt in unimaginable ways.

Examples abound, but the one that structures Procession, Robert Greene’s extraordinary new documentary, is the profound, ravaging toll on untold thousands of children molested by sexually predatory Roman Catholic priests. The sheer, staggering magnitude of that abuse, when you read it in the news or think about it for a moment, can cause your brain to simply switch off.

This, you can only think, is what evil looks like.

Cinema has broached the topic before, perhaps most memorably in the 2015 Best Picture-winning film Spotlight, but never like this. In the middle of all this darkness, Procession finds a still, small light. It’s not a documentary “about” the abuse scandal; it’s not an exposé or investigative journalism. It’s a collaboration made with six men who work together to find the truth and healing they ought to have been afforded by the church. They venture down a scary path: reentering their trauma to help themselves, one another, and a bigger world. As the title suggests, Procession is about the messy, sidewinding process of healing, and what it looks like to form a new kind of community out of that mess.

A man sits alone in a church, in a pew, looking to his right.
Michael Sandridge in Procession.

It started a few years ago, in August 2018, when attorney Rebecca Randles held a press conference in Kansas City with a few men who accused local Catholic priests of sexually assaulting them when they were boys. Greene contacted Randles, asking if there might be some interest among the group in collaborating on a film. The goal: to work through their trauma through scripted scenes they’d write themselves. To relive those memories, but this time in the driver’s seat.

It was a wild idea, but makes plenty of sense in the context of Greene’s oeuvre. One of America’s most innovative filmmakers, over the years he’s consistently prodded the edges of what we expect from “documentary,” in ways that tend to startle even the jaded. He’s laser-focused on making us vibrantly aware, in our seats, of what we’re actually doing when we make and watch a movie — how performance can be more real than “reality.” He offers us new ways of thinking about how we perform in communities and around one another.

Actress (2014), for instance, explored the performance of identity in societally dictated roles by following an actress who’s been on full-time parent duty for years as she considers reentering the business and who she really is. In similar territory, Kate Plays Christine (2016) centers on actress Kate Lyn Sheil as she prepares, sort of, to play the role of Christine Chubbuck, a Florida news anchor who shot herself on air in the 1970s. And Bisbee ’17 (2018) follows a Southwestern town with buried trauma as its residents work to reenact century-old events together. The film I thought about most while watching Procession was Greene’s Fake It So Real (2012), made nearly a decade ago, which focuses on a group of independent pro wrestlers as they find community and shape their identities in the ring and outside of it.

Performance pervades our lives, from the way we behave on social media to the way we behave in our most intimate relationships. It’s also a key part of religious practice. In Catholic worship, everyone has a part to play and a script to follow, from the parishioners in the seats to the choir to the readers. Leading the whole thing, at the center, is the priest, who fulfills for many there the role of “father.”

That’s what makes abuse by priests so particularly egregious — to the parish, they’re standing in for God, and so it’s God who’s hurt you. Furthermore, you’re not just experiencing spiritual abuse; your body is being harmed, which in turn harms your spirit. It’s a whole-being offense. So for men like the participants in Procession, it makes sense that reentering into a dramatic space like the one many of them occupied as altar boys, and enacting a new script that they’ve written while playing roles they’ve designed, might be a step toward breaking the old power.

Three men look at a notebook together in a church hallway. The names of a priest and a deacon are on doorways behind them.
Ed Gavagan, Michael Sandridge, and Dan Laurine in Procession.
Courtesy of Netflix

Six men eventually signed on to the project: Tom Viviano, Joe Eldred, Ed Gavagan, Michael Sandridge, Dan Laurine, and Mike Foreman. All were assaulted as children. Some were still devout; most were not. Each has coped in his own way with his unspeakable trauma and, for some, with the unwillingness of church authorities to acknowledge what happened or make it right. All approached Greene’s project with some degree of skepticism coupled with a willingness to give it a try.

And Procession chronicles their experiences. Greene mostly stays out of the way, but doesn’t really know what will happen, and sometimes the process is a stumbling one. The scenes each man writes and directs (with a young actor often acting as their younger selves) are powerful to watch, but you come to realize, watching, that it’s the community they form during the process as much as the act itself that is the medicine.

That community has all of the hallmarks of a healthy religious community, even if it is not technically religious. The men and the crew and their on-set therapist enact rituals together; they care for one another; they check in on one another, work with one another, and walk alongside one another as memories and anger surface. And they frequently speak of why they’re doing it: Not just for themselves, but so that other people might be helped as well.

I’m not Catholic, but some of my family is, and I attend a church with a similar worship style, one where you go through a script every week. Having been raised in an evangelical context, I’m richly aware of sexual abuse and assault scandals perpetrated by religious leaders to whom people look for guidance, wisdom, and moral clarity.

Watching Procession, I was, of course, gutted. Pain like that is hard to watch. But I also thought a lot about what it would look like — what it does look like — for people to form this kind of community with one another. What I realized is that Procession is that portrait, one lushly shot and lovingly nurtured in the filmmaking process. It’s a nonfiction film, and thus captures the many pauses, gasps, chuckles, jokes, hugs, tears, and moments of stillness around the edges of that community.

Two men sit next to one another, listening to someone speak.
Tom Viviano and Mike Foreman in Procession.
Courtesy of Netflix

And, because it’s nonfiction, it asks us to be part of it. I’ve met Tom and Joe and Ed and Michael and Dan and Mike at a screening of the film, but even if I hadn’t, I know they are real, that they exist in the world somewhere, breathing the same air as me, living in the same time. Procession reminds me that the world is full of people who’ve had those same experiences — probably people I interact with every day.

Now, having been called to literally hear their testimony and their experiences — just as I might in a church — I have been made a witness. I can’t turn away or pretend the statistics are faceless, even if I want to. I know too well that’s exactly what happened to them in a church that was supposed to be a spiritual home; the people who ought to have protected them instead made them prey.

In letting them retell those stories their way, and asking us to watch, Procession dares its audience to not look away. It calls us, in other words, to join the healing community, not just with vague aspirations but with our actual eyes. To play our roles as audience members and then take what we learn and bring it to others.

None of this is very easy. But if evil only dissipates when light hits it, then the first step is letting light in.

Procession opened in limited theaters on November 12 and premieres on Netflix on November 19.

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