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A marriage made not in heaven

John Deery's film 'Conspiracy of Silence,' which challenges the Catholic Church's position on celibacy, finds a welcome reception at the Taormina Film Festival.

June 16, 2003|Mary Colbert | Special to the Times

TAORMINA, Italy — The relationship between movies and film festivals is like dating. They look each other over, and occasionally there is great chemistry.

Such was the case when the provocative Irish feature "Conspiracy of Silence" connected with the Taormina Film Festival, Italy's second-largest film event. It was an instant love match that sent sparks flying all the way to the Vatican.

The film's director, John Deery, had flirted with the higher-profile Cannes, which strung him along before finally giving him the cold shoulder. Taormina was waiting on the rebound. At its world premiere in the ancient open-air 5,000-seat Greek theater, the film found a receptive audience for its impassioned plea for an end to the Catholic Church's vow of celibacy as well as for its less developed expose of the church's callous treatment of HIV-infected members of the lower clergy.

"Conspiracy of Silence" features a strong British ensemble cast, including Jason Barry, Hugh Bonneville, Patrick Casey, Brenda Fricker, Catherine Walker and Jonathan Forbes and leading Irish TV chat show host Gay Byrne as himself.

The action begins in the Vatican in Rome, with the special General Council meeting at which Father Frank Sweeney (Casey), an Irish priest, protests the church's denial of priests in relationships and HIV. He is restrained and driven away in a car. But Sweeney is prepared; as the car speeds off he presses his palms to the window with a message for the press.

Three years later back in Ireland, his suicide generates interest from journalist David Foley (Barry). Deery weaves this strand with the story of the expulsion from a local seminary of trainee priest Daniel McLaughlin (Forbes) on the assumption that he was receptive to sexual advances from a male colleague.

Ironically, Daniel's real quandary is to choose between former sweetheart Sinead (Walker) and the church. "Surely, God wants me to be happy," he says.

As the investigation of both incidents gains momentum, the church closes ranks but is unable to squelch a televised debate.

Shot in the British social realist style, the film lays no claims to masterpiece status, but there is no doubting its passion. Deery describes the story as "inspired by real events," and he compiled interviews with 35 seminarians, priests and those who have left the clergy.

"Conspiracy of Silence," refined over 23 drafts, won the prestigious Hartley-Merrill International Screenwriting Award in 2001 (from 2,000 candidates from 14 countries), which resulted in further development at the Sundance Screenwriters Lab. But unlike last year's Golden Lion winner at the Venice Film Festival, "The Magdalene Sisters," also an anti-Catholic Church expose, artistry is not the forte of this flawed but earnest film.

Financing was an uphill struggle, Deery says, because the Irish Film Board and numerous other regular sources turned him down.

Deery and producer Davina Stanley obtained British financing after using their own money to develop the script, and they shot in England because the completion bond firm was worried about opposition in Ireland.

Its boldness is precisely what attracted Taormina programmer Deborah Young and festival director Felice Laudadio, who formerly oversaw the Venice festival. In recent years many of the most potent cinematic criticisms of the Catholic Church have been launched in Europe's largest Catholic country (98% of the more than 50 million citizens).

At Taormina, Deery gave two press conferences and numerous interviews, and several leading newspapers ran articles on the movie. Certainly, its exposure was maximized ahead of 10 Taormina festival offerings later this month, including "Conspiracy." The film will also screen at the Moscow and Montreal festivals.

As for opposition from the church, "The Vatican is a state within a state, a political as well as spiritual entity, and has come down hard on" films unflattering to the institution such as Giuseppe Ferrara's "God's Bankers," about the 1980s bank scandal that had alleged ties to the Vatican, Young said. The film was quickly withdrawn from theaters in Italy, but " 'Conspiracy' is going to have a much bigger audience, and I don't think the Vatican is going to be able to overlook it."

Deery, 41, has deliberately exploited Taormina as a political platform. As a director who honed his craft on political films for the British Labor Party, including Prime Minister Tony Blair's 1997 election campaign, it's familiar ground.

"I'm a democratic socialist by nature," Deery says, "and I believe people should have a say in the way their lives are governed and their views should be respected. As things are at the moment, the church is in a time warp and young people, particularly, feel disenfranchised."

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