Film review: Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier ... Pope: This real-life conspiracy is worthy of le Carré

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The Independent Culture

Talk about moving in mysterious ways. In the very week that Pope Benedict XVI steps down, a documentary comes along intimating that his resignation was years overdue. The film's subject is the child abuse committed by Catholic priests, an issue which was the ultimate responsibility of the Pope during his last years as Cardinal Ratzinger. Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God asks why so many people, from Ratzinger down, allowed this abuse to continue.

The story may not be new, but it's one that deserves retelling, and Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side) tells it with the force and cogency of a John le Carré conspiracy thriller. With testimonials from an array of church insiders, he argues that its record of child abuse isn't a matter of a few bad apples, but of "a system which cultivates and protects sexual abusers". As shocking as it is to hear about specific crimes, it's just as shocking to hear how methodically those crimes were covered up. Some of the details could be the stuff of pitch-black satire: one official bought a tropical island so that paedophiliac priests would have somewhere scenic to live, out of temptation's way.

Interwoven with the broader investigation is the gut-wrenching case of Father Lawrence Murphy, who preyed on the pupils of a Milwaukee school for the deaf. In the 1970s, some former pupils – such as Arthur Budzinski, now in his 60s –fought to bring him to justice, and now they recount their ordeal in urgent sign language, vocalised by terrifically well-cast actors including Chris Cooper and Ethan Hawke. You can't fail to be moved by the victims' bravery in taking a stand as young men, as well as in talking about it today.

Beautiful Creatures (****) sounds like a laboratory-reared hybrid of Twilight and Harry Potter, in that it takes the former's small-town supernatural teen-romance, and then splices it with the latter's wizardry and scene-stealing British thesps (Jeremy Irons and Emma Thompson). But whether or not the source novel's authors were being as calculating as that, the result is wittily scripted and visually sumptuous, with a fizzing personality all of its own. It's set in the deep South (so True Blood is mixed in, too), where a bookish hunk, Alden Ehrenreich, is drawn to the new girl in class, Alice Englert, even though she's rumoured to be a witch. Fictional as those names might seem, they actually belong to the actors, not the characters. Ehrenreich has the sparky magnetism of the young Leonardo DiCaprio, while the soulful Englert was the best thing about last year's Ginger & Rosa.

It's not a perfect film: as with most young-adult fiction adaptations, it's weighed down by so much mythology that by the end it can hardly get off the ground. But it's feistier, funnier and darker than you might think. And it was lucky to get a 12A certificate. Some spells are blood-curdlingly spooky, and the star-crossed lovers' attraction goes well beyond a shared taste in literature. Unlike those mopey Twilighters, they don't wait for four films before they get up close and personal.