Spotlight: The Struggles of Faith, Religion and Abuse

While the topic was painful and could have been expressed in a way to manipulate and shock,tenderly and honestly showed the ways in which abuse impacts people at every connection point.
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My Review of Spotlight

Whenever I attend a movie screening for a film that address religions and faith, I try my darnedest to remain as objective as possible. I realize that most folks do not have the same religious, theological or denomination perspective and thankfully, we are each going to approach, view, and react to movies about the church and faith differently and that is wonderful.

That said, because of my connection to the church, I am always a bit weary of faith or church movies that attempt to make grandiose and sweeping statements about faith, the church and religion. For me, I am less interested in proving theological or religious cinematic expressions as "right" or "wrong" and am more interested in how these films challenge us to grapple with deeper understandings of our own belief systems. Biblical epics can help us examine our understanding of scripture and foundations of faith and, likewise, films about "the church" can help us to think about our own connections to the religious practices and institutions.

Spotlight, named after the investigative team at the Boston Globe in the early 2000s, is based on the true story of the Boston Catholic Archdiocese cover-up and protection of priests who had been sexually molesting children in multiple parishes. Spotlight definitely gives much to chew on when it comes to understanding of faith and the institution of the church.

Spotlight was a pleasant departure from other movies that I have seen lately. There were no explosions, car chases, awkward sexual tension or comedic pratfalls. The ensemble cast, albeit all white and only one woman, was excellent and many scenes felt as if they would be good examples for any master acting class. The movie was long, 128 minutes, but the pace moved just fast enough to keep the story going without any superfluousness scenes meant to highlight any one actor. And while the topic was painful and could have been expressed in a way to manipulate and shock, Spotlight tenderly and honestly showed the ways in which abuse impacts people at every connection point.

In the end, Spotlight's strengths lie in the issues that are raised for the audience to grapple with. No I do not know how true to fact the movie is, and some may have felt it a bit heavy-handed in parts, but I felt as if the movie left us with a good balance of resolved and unresolved issues being faced at the time. For me, there were four themes that kept coming up and had my mind and soul yearning for more conversations.

How people experience and express faith and religion

Those who do not claim a faith tradition often wonder how people can do so in light of the negative things that "the church" has perpetuated over the years. Yes, this was about the Catholic church in particular, but we know that many traditions have their examples of sexual abuse and institutional justifications. What Spotlight does really well is to not just make this such a clear separation for folks, but to allow people to struggle with this deep connection to faith and the church that they have known it to be and/or hope it should be. From those who wish to justify a few bad acts by the overall good that the church does, to those who don't understand why anyone can still feel drawn to the church, to those who find themselves abandoned by the church of their birth, Spotlight provides some deeply poignant moments of exploration and struggle.

How abuse is protected and perpetrated

As I said, no institution, especially those who have power and influence within vulnerable communities, is without its share of scandal and cover-ups. In my denominations, the Presbyterian Church (USA), there are far too many instances of financial misconduct, abuse of power and sexual violence and molestation. In the church that I served right out of seminary, we had to deal with a case of an elder molesting a young person. While the Catholic church is being singled out in Spotlight, they are not the only institution that has had a less than healthy history of responding to sexual abuse. Institutions with both good and malicious intentions believe that these situations can be taken care of in-house, are scared of the shame that will be brought to the larger church family should these truths be known, and encourage individuals to compartmentalize faith and church to the point of becoming complicit in systematic corruption. Spotlight does a good job at expressing the tensions between seeing this as about the individual perpetrators as well as the institution powers -- and how does one approach both differently in order to find justice.

The victims and truth-seekers

Throughout this movie I was struck by the honesty with which Spotlight tells the victims' stories. It would have been too easy to provide a well-worn hero archetype: well-adjusted, unaffected, and ready to seek justice and take-down the system. Instead Spotlight in just a few characters shows the complexities of abuse: pain, sadness, anger, strength, frustration, perseverance, resignation, isolation, despair, confusions, resolution, etc. And as I mentioned above, as stories were shared and experiences brought to light, I felt as if they were handled with care and compassion. I would be interested to know how well victim rights and survivor groups felt their collective stories were told.

How news and investigative journalism has changed

The technology enthusiast and armchair sociologist in me was also fascinated by going back to the era when the internet was in its early stages and investigative journalism was still newspaper based. While some might harken back to the days when an investigative team was even possible, Spotlight, gives many not-too-subtle nods to the coming tsunami of change that was soon to impact the newspaper industry. Again, a topic well worth exploring both to reflect on what society has lost as well as gained with the shifts in investigative journalism and the newspaper business.

Final Verdict

As I have shared in past movie reviews, I really wish I had a rating system. But since I do not, I'll give this a solid four out of five stars and say that Spotlight is well worth seeing as a film and in order to support this classic story-telling as a much needed element of our collective cinematic experience.

Watch the trailer here:

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