In his films, Robert Greene has tried to bring the alienated past into the present. Kate Plays Christine, from 2016, uses Kate Lyn Sheil’s preparation to play Christine Chubbuck—the newscaster who died by suicide on air 42 years earlier—in part to navigate an actor’s responsibilities when trying to resurrect a real person relegated to folklore. 2018’s Bisbee ’17 chronicled the reenactment, on the event’s 100th anniversary, of the forced removal and abandonment of more than 1,200 striking miners from their homes into the Arizona desert. As Bisbee community members take on the roles of both deputized corporate thugs and workers demanding better lives, in many cases inhabiting the personas of their own ancestors, they come to better understand the sway such history still holds over today. Even in Actress, Greene’s 2014 portrait of Brandy Burre returning to acting as she reinvents her personal life, re-evaluating the past is an act of taking control. When Burre slowly goes back on stage, engaging with old friends and with the visceral excitement of being in front of an audience, she begins to steer her life away from a toxic marriage and define herself anew. She realizes she’s no longer obligated to hold on to her old self.
Procession, Greene’s latest film and his first for Netflix, is again about acquitting the present from the past. It begins with a 2018 press conference in Kansas City, Missouri. Lawyer Rebecca Randles stands with three of the survivors—the most vocal, a man seething with anger named Mike Foreman—stating that they can call out more than 230 known Catholic clergy members in the Kansas City area part of a far-reaching network of sexual abuse. Seeing this, Greene reached out to Randles with the idea to use drama therapy, closely guided by registered drama therapist Monica Phinney, to give a small group of survivors the chance to transform their nightmares into something dramatic, to potentially transform their trauma into something survivable. Procession presents this approach: Six men scripting, storyboarding, location scouting and finally shooting their worst memories, however they want to interpret them, interspersed with the completed results. However well-intentioned everyone involved, Randles warns early in the process, even the first steps of casting could prove too much for some of these guys. And for the rest of the film, that tension is constant: What will trigger a trauma response? Is this even helping?
As they conceive their scenes, Procession introduces our six stars. Whereas Mike buries himself in rage, prone to obsessive tirades and expletives, interior designer Michael Sandridge, a sweet-spoken guy composed of inhuman calm, seems to have reconciled himself well enough with his horror—at least in comparison. He’s still a believer and doesn’t want to trash the church. Film and TV location manager Dan Laurine, hirsute and broad-chested and all-around salt-and-pepper, worries more about the mental health of his older brother, who was also sexually assaulted by the same priests who abused Dan, than his own. Dan is a rock on set, an asset to Greene’s crew, and a source of strength for the other survivors, especially Joe Eldred, who’s given, as his wife describes, to sudden dissociative episodes. There’s finely dressed, New York-based contractor Ed Gavagan, who hadn’t spoken publicly until then. He envisions their movie’s opening scene as an Avengers-like assemblage of superheroes gathered to vanquish the world’s oldest evil. Then there’s Tom Viviano, who can’t talk about his experience because he’s waiting on legal action, so he’s just there to help, playing the difficult part of the green-eyed demonic priest that haunts so many scenes.
Though Procession’s breadth threatens to swallow its pace (too many narrative threads vying for resolution), the film is, most importantly, a group effort. Balancing the film’s many stories is part of the dramatic process, part of the therapeutic experience. That the title card credits everyone involved—creators, actors, editors, composers, cinematographer, crew—without elevating Greene’s name is only one small way the director attempts to remove himself from his film.
And still, Procession feels like the surest execution of Greene’s voice. His films have always examined the nature of the documentary, pulling apart the dynamic between witness and witnessed—those on both sides of the camera—to give subjects some power over how their stories are told. Arguably, this isn’t the responsibility of the documentarian, but Greene and his crew are inherently sensitive to these stories—not only because some of the survivors are still very vulnerable, but because these six men aren’t interested in solely serving themselves. When discussing how to portray their younger versions, they agree that having one child actor play all of them makes most sense. As different as their stories may be, they still share so much, and their experiences bind them to victims of the Catholic Church (and the families of victims) all over the world.
Regardless, Greene’s craft is obvious, though never obtrusive. His previous films demonstrate a filmmaker mindful of how fiction—genre especially—can erase the author from the text. Actress flirts with melodrama; Kate Plays Christine, shot by Sean Price Williams, wades through the territory of a psychological thriller. Procession’s title scene bears shades of mid-’70s demonic horror, like The Exorcist or The Omen. Rather than further repress their pain, or obfuscate any kind of truth, the physical edifice of filmmaking allows the men to access their memories carefully, to manifest the contours of their pain more manageably. In the midst of directing a scene that takes place in a church confessional, following Tom losing his cool when he realizes there’s a lock on the inside of the small space—“Why is there a lock?!” he repeats, punching the door—Joe becomes overwhelmed as he writes down Tom’s line. Attempting to keep himself together, he tells Michael that he can’t say it out loud, but that it’s exactly what the priest said to young Joe to manipulate him. To scare him into submission. And Tom kinda flubs the line.
Joe sobs in relief, power taken from the words through a less-than-successful line reading. Elsewhere, after Dan convinces his brother to join him in scouting for the location of the Lake of the Ozarks vacation home where their abuser took them and so many other boys, they head home unsuccessful. Dan fears he made things worse with his brother, that dredging up buried trauma without any resolution may have caused his brother to spiral. In turn, Michael chastises Greene, in front of the whole group, for not vetting the trip beforehand. Even if Greene insists Procession isn’t his film—isn’t his story—he’s still the director, and everyone involved trusts him to safely get them through this. Location scouting isn’t only that, in this case.
Ed proclaims early on that he’s not going to “self-flagellate” on camera, that his pain will not be exploited for the sake of art. Procession is undoubtedly gorgeous, Midwest vistas sharing as much detail as a shot of mysteriously dead fish floating near the surface of Lake Viking, but Greene and cinematographer Robert Kolodny infuse the grand flatness of the landscape with religious portent. In Cheyenne to visit the church where he was abused, the film pauses on a brief whiff of bliss as Ed pulls on the cable connected to the church’s large bell, so heavy he remembers it dragging his younger self from his feet when yanked with all of his body weight. Adult Ed smiles as the bell gongs, and we cut to the surrounding City, the sound of the bell resonating and softening, as if Ed were signalling to the public that justice has arrived.
These painterly gestures give way to mundane conversations, jokes, place-setting. Likewise, Procession never presents the survivors’ movie scenes straightforwardly, cutting finished shots with behind the scenes glimpses. Mike Foreman’s segment is an especially breathtaking melding of the two realities: A reenactment of a memory involving a young Mike taking a cake his mother baked back to an abuser’s house transubstantiates into a chance for Mike to finally tell a few members of an “independent” church review board what he really thinks of them. Drama, when under their control, reminds them that their stories—their pain and experiences—matter. They don’t want revenge, they just want the real face of the church, under the symbols and pomp and exorbitant amounts of money, to be revealed.
The young actor who stars in each of the segments, Terrick Trobough, spends much of the film in the company of the six survivors, hearing their stories and quietly, professionally doing his job. He witnesses them weep and punch things and disassociate, not because they’re fragile, but because they’re broken. Michael says as much to Robert. Terrick responds that he believes their stories. Later, with Dan following an emotional moment, Terrick asks him, “How are you?” Maybe he’s just being polite, but Terrick’s small gestures of empathy glow brightly. As does Procession, when the beauty of Greene’s filmmaking satisfies the intelligence and clarity of his methods. “I hope the strength you showed is rewarded with peace and contentment,” Joe tells himself near the end of the film, reaching decades into the past. A close-up of his face lets the audience know if that hope has been resolved. It’s very good kino.
Director: Robert Greene
Starring: Terrick Trobough, Michael Sandridge, Mike Foreman, Joe Eldred, Ed Gavagan, Tom Viviano, Dan Laurine
Release Date: November 12 (NY and LA); November 19, 2021 (Netflix)
Dom Sinacola is a Portland-based writer and editor. You can follow him on Twitter.