Cults open to ques­tions

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews -

Alex Gib­ney is by far the most pro­lific ac­tive direc­tor of fea­ture doc­u­men­taries; of the two dozen or so films he’s made in re­cent years (not count­ing pro­grams made for tele­vi­sion) he has tack­led an eclec­tic num­ber of sub­jects, from Hunter S. Thomp­son to En­ron, from Lance Arm­strong to Steve Jobs, from pe­dophile priests to Scien­tol­ogy. Gib­ney’s skill, and it’s a for­mi­da­ble one, is to clar­ify events and sit­u­a­tions that are, at first glance, far from clear, and he’s also a mas­ter at cut­ting away the ir­rel­e­vant stuff at the mar­gins and shin­ing a light on the faces of peo­ple who have at­tempted to avoid scru­tiny.

He takes the ti­tle,

from the 2013 book by Lawrence Wright, which went a long way to­wards re­veal­ing just what Scien­tol­ogy was all about. Gib­ney goes fur­ther, thanks to some forthright in­ter­views with for­mer grass­roots mem­bers and for­mer high-rank­ing of­fi­cers of the or­gan­i­sa­tion.

Any in­ves­ti­ga­tion into what Scien­tol­ogy is all about starts with its founder, L. Ron Hub­bard, and here Gib­ney de­picts a pro­lific au­thor of pulp science-fic­tion books who claimed (er­ro­neously) to have been a war hero and who in­cor­po­rated many of his sci-fi themes into re­li­gious dogma. Damn­ing let­ters writ­ten by Hub­bard’s sec­ond wife are ex­am­ined, and rare tele­vi­sion in­ter­views with the man him­self have been un­earthed, pro­vid­ing con­fir­ma­tion that Philip Sey­mour Hoffman drew heav­ily on Hub­bard to por­tray the mega­lo­ma­niac char­ac­ter in The Mas­ter.

Hub­bard seems to have been an am­a­teur in com­par­i­son with his suc­ces­sor, David Mis­cav­ige, who, ac­cord­ing to the film, used in­tim­i­da­tion and black­mail to thwart an at­tempt by the In­ter­nal Rev­enue Ser­vice, Amer­ica’s tax of­fice, to deny Scien­tol­ogy the sta­tus of a reli­gion and thus gain tax ex­emp­tion.

Of course it’s fas­ci­nat­ing to learn more about the Scien­tol­ogy celebri­ties and here again Gib­ney doesn’t dis­ap­point. Academy Award win­ning writer-direc­tor Paul Hag­gis ( Crash), a mem­ber for 35 years but now a critic of the cult, re­veals his shame at hav­ing un­ques­tion­ingly sup­ported a regime that or­ders “dis­con­nec­tion” from “sup­pres­sive per­sons” — that is, fam­ily and friends not in sym­pa­thy with the so-called reli­gion. Proud mem­ber John Tra­volta, on the other hand, who joined when very young, talks en­thu­si­as­ti­cally about a world with­out war or poverty, though quite how Scien­tol­ogy will bring this about isn’t made clear. More in­ter­est­ing are the con­tri­bu­tions made by Sylvia “Spanky” Tay­lor, who worked for some years at the church’s Los An­ge­les “celebrity cen­tre” and who was placed in charge of Tra­volta. As for Tom Cruise, we’re told his mar­riage to Ni­cole Kid­man was seen as a dan­ger to the cult, and that ac­tion was taken against her (Cruise’s bizarre ap­pear­ance at a fan­tas­ti­cally lav­ish Scien­tol­ogy event that is staged much like the Os­cars, and at which he’s pre­sented with the “Free­dom Medal of Valor”, is one of the film’s high points).

Gib­ney packs the film with statis­tics and mind-bog­gling in­sights into the mul­ti­mil­lion­dol­lar or­gan­i­sa­tion, and in the process of­fers the viewer an amaz­ing amount of in­for­ma­tion about the shad­owy cult that re­tains ex­tra­or­di­nary pop­u­lar­ity among its ad­her­ents. Go­ing Clear is an out­stand­ing ex­am­ple of the in­ves­tiga­tive doc­u­men­tary. The popular Bri­tish co­me­dian and ac­tor Rus­sell Brand is not a fan of Bri­tain’s Con­ser­va­tive Party or of Mil­ton Fried­man’s the­o­ries of eco­nomics. In a highly polem­i­cal doc­u­men­tary “made” (ac­cord­ing to the cred­its) by Brand and Michael Win­ter­bot­tom, Brand re­turns to Grays, the Lon­don sub­urb where he was born and raised, to dis­cover, un­sur­pris­ingly, that things are not what they used to be. Brand blames Mar­garet Thatcher for the fact the rich are richer than ever and the poor are poorer, and his film seems de­signed as pre-elec­tion pro­pa­ganda. The Bri­tish elec­tion is, of course, now be­hind us, and the re­sults not what Brand would have wished, so the film has a rather parochial and dated air, though at the same time many of the points it raises are wor­thy of con­tin­ued de­bate and dis­cus­sion.

The trou­ble is that Brand is no Michael Moore, the lat­ter be­ing pre­sum­ably the main in­flu­ence here. Like Moore, Brand likes to chal­lenge the rich and pow­er­ful, and his main tar­gets in this film, apart from David Cameron, are the chief ex­ec­u­tives of Bri­tain’s fi­nan­cial in­sti­tu­tions. Dur­ing the course of the film, Brand divides his time be­tween vis­it­ing the homes of Bri­tain’s bat­tlers and en­gag­ing sym­pa­thet­i­cally with them (and their kids) on a very down-toearth level on the one hand and, on the other, turn­ing up unan­nounced at the main of­fices of sev­eral banks, de­mand­ing to see the man in charge while at the same time ha­rangu­ing the be­mused se­cu­rity staff about how lit­tle they’re paid and how many mil­lions of pounds their boss just earned as a bonus.

To say this is preach­ing to the con­verted is putting it mildly, and while Brand (and, pre­sum­ably, Win­ter­bot­tom) are doubt­less sin­cere in their con­cern about the ways in which the eco­nomic poli­cies of Fried­man’s dis­ci­ples are af­fect- Go­ing Clear: Scien­tol­ogy & the Pri­son of Be­lief, The Mafia Only Kills in Sum­mer, ing work­ing class men, women and chil­dren, their anger could have been pre­sented more sub­tly. Scenes in which Brand pon­tif­i­cates in front of school­child­ren clearly too young to com­pre­hend the is­sues in­volved add noth­ing to the de­bate.

That said, the film is well con­structed and has its share of amus­ing mo­ments, not least the use of speeches made by the PM and Chan­cel­lor of the Ex­che­quer that have been trans­formed by adroit edit­ing into a rap num­ber. In Ital­ian satirist Pif, aka Pier­francesco Dilib­erto, mak­ing his first fea­ture as direc­tor, ex­plores life in Palermo in the 1970s and 80s, when a se­ries of vi­cious and lethal at­tacks by the Mafia on judges and other author­ity fig­ures be­came a threat to civilised so­ci­ety. Th­ese events are seen through the eyes of Ar­turo, played as a child by Alex Bis­conti and as an adult by the direc­tor. Ar­turo is mys­te­ri­ously ob­sessed with prime min­is­ter Gi­ulio An­dreotti, an irony Ital­ians will ap­pre­ci­ate more than non-Ital­ians, given that many sus­pected An­dreotti con­doned Mafia ac­tiv­i­ties.

Ar­turo the boy is be­friended by a po­lice of­fi­cer who be­comes an early vic­tim of the Mafia; as a young man he is in­fat­u­ated with Flora (Cris­tiana Capo­tondi), who works for an anti-Mafia cru­sader, duly as­sas­si­nated, along with sev­eral oth­ers.

Pif’s amal­ga­ma­tion of news­reel footage, grim re-cre­ations of Mafia killings and a bit­terly satir­i­cal ap­proach be­comes in­di­gestible af­ter a while, and a cou­ple of the per­for­mances are mis­judged. The com­bi­na­tion of jet-black hu­mour and real-life crime makes for a bold, but never en­tirely con­vinc­ing, con­cept.

A scene from

left; Pier­francesco Dilib­erto and Cris­tiana Capo­tondi in

be­low left

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