Did you catch this week's episode of Frontline, "Secrets of the Vatican" (you can watch online right here)? Probably not the best title, given that the subjects it covers have been pretty well reported: Benedict's resignation, curial dysfunction, sexual abuse, Maciel's crimes, a gay clerical subculture in Rome, the Vatileaks scandal, corruption at the Vatican Bank. If you've been keeping up with those stories, you probably won't learn a lot viewing this film.

The first time I watched "Secrets of the Vatican," I found it slightly annoying.

The music: Is there some law requiring documentarians who cover the Catholic Church to score their work with spooky chant or cheese-ball action-movie music? It's distracting, especially when played behind the film's powerful interviews with victims of sexual abuse--including Maciel's son Raul Gonzales. (N.B.: When the film turns to Pope Francis's election and his focus on the poor, the music takes an appropriately humbler turn, replacing pipe organs with pan flutes. Cue Carson Zamfir joke.)

The reenactments: In the segment on the Vatican Bank scandals, the narrator describes the Italian authorites' surveillance operation, just as the camera pans across a roomful of official-looking men intently staring at computers, holding on a young man wearing headphones, leaning in toward the screen as though the thing was about to whisper the location of Jimmy Hoffa's body.

The narration: The film includes an interview with a Roman who left the priesthood to pursue a relationship with a woman. Frontline voice Will Lyman intones, “But the hypocrisy he saw around him disturbed Simone, and after a time of prayer and contemplation, he decided he wanted to live a normal life and go where his heart took him.” Ciao, celibate weirdos! (And did the director have to I.D. the guy as "Fr. Simone Alfieri" in his first appearance on film, when he knew that the man had already been laicized? Surprise.)

The sporadic imprecision: "The Benedict doctrine on homosexuality," the narrator tells viewers, "was deeply hurtful to those in the Vatican who were trying to lead celibate lives.” He's trying to describe the former pope's decree barring men with "deep-seated homosexual tendencies" from seminaries and ordination.

The confusing voicover: In one scene, the filmmaker interviews an anonymous priest about the pain he experienced following the Vatican's decree on gay seminarians. He's filmed in silhouette, shot from the side, and his voice is altered. He speaks. A man with an Italian accent translates. But you can still sort of make out what the priest is saying, even if he sounds like Darth Vader. And he is clearly speaking English. Was the director trying to further obscure the priest's identity? It's strange.

But then I watched "Secrets of the Vatican" again yesterday. Its pecadillos continued to bug me a bit. I wish the film had more to say about the Vatican's (and the U.S. bishops') recent attempts to address the scandal. I wish it offered a counterweight to some of victims' attorney Jeff Anderson's opinions. I wish it had tried to do less. But none of those shortcomings overwhelm the movie's greatest strength: the interviews. With victims--including Maciel's son, another one of Maciel's victims, Juan Vaca, and Monica Barrett (who tells her story of being raped in church by a Milwaukee priest); with journalists; with Cardinal Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga, who heads Francis's kitchen cabinet. Nearly all of the interviews offer real insights--not something I've found in many recent documentaries about the church.

What did you think?

Grant Gallicho joined Commonweal as an intern and was an associate editor for the magazine until 2015. 

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