Movie: Conspiracy of Silence

Our Rating: 2.00

Here's fresh evidence that Pedro Almodóvar's Bad Education may have been the last worthwhile word the cinema will have to say on the subject of priestly sexual transgression. Wallowing in the ripped-from-the-headlines hysteria Almodóvar had the good sense to avoid, Conspiracy of Silence grabs us by the (papal) collar and doesn't let go until its 87 minutes of TV-movie hectoring are up. It isn't as much a movie as a sermon – an irony you can count on writer/director John Deery to have missed, given the overweening bluntness he displays in this, his debut feature.

There shouldn't be much leeway to bungle a film that begins so spectacularly, with a scene of a protester interrupting a Vatican conference by holding up an inflammatory placard reading "The church has AIDS." Pumped up for a thrilling exposé of HIV infection in the upper echelons of Catholicism, we're swiftly disappointed by the realization that this is but one of the hot-button topics Deery's fervent yet scattershot film will be getting up in arms about. Finding out how and why the church "contracted AIDS" has to wait while we learn the sad story of Danny McLaughlin (Jonathan Forbes), an Irish seminary student who's bounced from his school after he's seen leaving the room of a gay student. His superiors presume the worst, and the hypocrisy they display in meting out punishment puts the film in thematic parallel to Bad Education. Unlike Almodóvar's film, however, Conspiracy goes to great lengths to show that its young hero is "innocent" (i.e., straight) – a victim of unwelcome advances. Deery isn't about to risk our sympathy for Danny by endowing him with a genuinely queer eye.

Though the lad is 100 percent hetero, his sense of proportion is a bit off. He responds to his expulsion by launching a public crusade – not only against Rector Cahill (Sean McGinley), who decreed his banishment, but against the entire church's supposedly outmoded policy of official celibacy. (What one has to do with the other is a subject the movie treats with all the clarity of mid-period Oliver Stone.) Complicating things even further, the boy picks this exact crisis point in his faith-based education to finally give in to the pleasures of the flesh with a lassie (Catherine Walker) who's long loved him. Does that ability to pursue multiple agendas constitute chronic overachievement on Danny's part? Or is it just plain lack of focus? Either way, it's the cue for the most embarrassing soft-core sex montage since Christian Slater and Tara Reid went at it in Alone in the Dark.

The job of divining the connection between Danny's case and the aforementioned HIV scandal falls to – you guessed it! – a crusading reporter (Jason Barry), a walking cliché of a character in a movie that thrives on the stuff. By the time this one-man conflation of Woodward and Bernstein is being threatened by anonymous phone voices for "getting too close to the truth," we're long past hoping the movie has anything vaguely original up its sleeve. Its one interesting suggestion – that guys like Danny pursue the priesthood because it's a viable alternative to going on the dole – has already come and gone, picked over in some marginally successful scenes between Danny and his parents. (Brenda Fricker plays his mom, making the most of a typically one-dimensional role.)

The point of this film isn't to tell a novel (or even believable) story, but to shame the church into giving up celibacy as a way of operation. We know that this is the goal because several characters announce it outright, in verbal salvos that ring not like realistic, day-to-day conversation, but op-ed columns plucked from the Religion Today section of a particularly dull daily newspaper. I can pick up one of those at a moment's notice, so excuse me if I fail to see Deery's shrieking screed as any particular godsend.