The self-reflexive cinema of Robert Greene has covered a wide variety of different subjects and styles over the last decade, but his most resonant films — from the séance-like portraiture of “Kate Plays Christine” to the collective historical requiem of “Bisbee ’17” — are bound together by a shared understanding of the camera as a conduit to the past. “Bisbee,” in which an entire Arizona mining town is provoked to re-stage the darkest chapter in its history, offers a particularly harrowing example of how Greene’s lens often functions as a portal of sorts. It’s as if his filmmaking process itself collapses space-time through the re-enactments that it compels, transposing now onto then in a way that leaves the two feeling as inextricable as fact and fiction. It meshes them together into a two-way street, or reveals all the ways in which they already are. In “Procession,” that street is revamped into an escape route.
Here, Greene has made a(nother) sober, powerful, and even disarmingly playful film that hinges on performance as a kind of therapy. The difference is that the subjects of “Procession” — six middle-aged survivors of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic priests and clergy in the Midwestern United States — see the camera less as a way to commune with the past than a way to shake loose from the traumatic grip its held on them since they were children.
The first thing we see is the first thing Greene saw: A Kansas City press conference from August 2018 in which lawyer Rebecca Randles stood behind three of the aforementioned survivors and announced that they had been able to identify more than 230 priests in the Missouri area who had sexually abused the most vulnerable members of their flock. A gravel-voiced man named Mike Foreman shakes that “it is an absolute poverty that the statute of limitations is the crown jewel of the Catholic Church,” hinting at the profound sense of helplessness that’s raged against for so many decades. “What does God and Jesus Christ think about that?”
Foreman may not get a decent answer to that question in this life, but “Procession” — a film that’s officially credited to several of its participants, including Registered Drama Therapist Monica Phinney — offers he and a small fraternity of other survivors a chance to assert some measure of control over their own pain. To dramatize (and even direct) their memories of abuse in a way that might allow them, independently and as a crew, to physically relocate where the trauma is stored in their brains.
It goes without saying that encouraging these men to write, direct, and act out scenes from their worst nightmares is a fraught process. And — at least for those familiar with Greene’s work — it should also go without saying that it’s a relatively transparent one. For every wall that this outgrowth of drama therapy allows Foreman and his fellow survivors to break through, it has the potential to build another right behind. Early on, Randles discusses her mild skepticism about the movie, and refers to its “casting” process with an edge that encourages Greene to be careful. Later, it will be up to the survivors to set their own boundaries, help each other test them, and even host a casting process of their own. At one point, a survivor insists that he’s “not going to self-flagellate in front of the camera” to get a certain result, echoing the language that professional screen actors tend to adopt when inhabiting fictional characters.
For what it’s worth, Greene has assembled one hell of a cast here, and each of the six primary subjects in “Procession” is heard and understood with a measure of the clarity they’ve been denied for so long. Foreman is unforgettable for his incandescent candor; he reveals without hesitation that he’s never had a romantic relationship because of his abuse, and shares the unorthodox coping mechanism he uses to recenter himself.
Others survivors have been able to suppress some part of their rage, for better or worse. New York-based contractor Ed Gavagan — whose cosmopolitan vibe stands out from the rest of this flyover crowd, and infers a subconscious attempt to re-imagine himself at some point over the years — seems to be sharing a secret that he keeps from the people in his life back East. As the group slowly begins to resemble the crew of the movie, it’s tempting to think of the tough-talking Gavagan as the producer (“I want this to be like Marvel superheroes vanquishing the forces of fucking darkness,” he insists).
Gentle giant Dan Laurine naturally serves as the location scout, because that’s what he does in his real life. Laurine is eager to wrest the power back from the places where these men were abused, a desire that’s frustrated by an irony so perverse that it could shake anyone’s faith; the protracted sequence in question is too poignant to leave on the cutting room floor, and yet it’s one of several asides that pull focus from the creative process at the heart of Greene’s film, and contribute to an overall feeling of shapelessness as the doc goes along. At the same time, that sense of finding your way through it speaks to the complete absence of a proscriptive framework, which is nauseating in so many documentaries about trauma, and would have been painfully reductive here.
Nevertheless, “Procession” is most illuminating for us — and presumably most therapeutic for the survivors — when it focuses on the short films they’re making. Seeing how the presence and potential of a movie camera inspires these men to think about their trauma in a fundamentally different way than they ever have before is perhaps the single most lucid testament to the transformative power of Greene’s dialectic meta-cinema. One crystalline moment that comes to mind: The men discuss whether to use different child actors in each of their shorts, or use one performer to represent them all; you can see the synapses firing behind Michael Sandridge’s lake blue eyes as he opts for the latter, recognizing that each of these survivors is in some respect the same little boy. Later, when Foreman suggests they should film a reenactment of the review board that absolved some of the abusive priests, you can feel Greene’s subjects picking up the ball and running with it in real-time.
The authorship of the vignettes these men shoot can be unhelpfully muddled at times; we see them writing screenplays and even storyboarding their shots, and yet it often seems as if Greene is doing the actual directing himself. It’s understandable why Greene wouldn’t want to make any of this about him, and yet this is the first of his films in which I found myself looking for him onscreen (he makes a quick cameo or two) in order to better understand the dynamics on set. Still, the finished products are of far less importance than the deeply palpable catharsis that results from creating them.
I was reminded towards the end of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “After Life,” in which the newly deceased re-enact a favorite memory from their time on Earth in order to live inside of it for all eternity. “Procession” is effectively the negative image of that process, as these men are choosing the most cursed memory from their childhood and re-enacting it in order to escape from it. As one of the survivors puts it, referencing another movie with which all of them are assuredly familiar: “‘Spotlight’ was about trying to get in from the outside. In our film, we’re trying to get out.” It’s not for us to say whether they do here, or will some day in the future, but cinema is a collaborative medium, and watching these men crew for each other is more than just a counterbalance to the Church’s unforgivable betrayal — it’s a beautiful work of art unto itself.
“Procession” premiered at the 2021 Telluride Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.