THE BOYS OF ST. VINCENT

Canadian Docudrama

The Boys of St. Vincent (1993) directed by John N. Smith for the National Film Board of Canada is a two part docudrama which caused considerable controversy when it first appeared. At the time of its release, the criminal trials of several Brothers from Mount Cashel Orphanage in Newfoundland were in progress. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation was not allowed to broadcast the film in Ontario and western Quebec in case it should in some way interfere with the trial--even though a disclaimer, saying that the film is loosely based upon several different events and not any real individuals, was added. Part one or The Boys Of St. Vincent deals with the brutalization and sexual molestation of several orphans under the care of a group of priests headed by brother Peter Lavin (Henry Czerny). Part Two, which takes place fifteen years later, concerns the events surrounding Lavin's trial and the lives of the boys, who are now adults. The Boys of St Vincent is a powerful, adult docudrama about a painful and largely repressed part of Canadian history.

The critic John Caughie locates the specificity of docudrama in the integration of two distinct discourses: that of the realist narrative drama (which I would call melodrama) and that of the Griersonian documentary from which the docudrama adopts two aspects: a strong desire for social education presented in a palatable form, and the need to reveal repressed histories. The melodramatic aspect attracts an audience and the documentary aspect serves to keep the narrative truthful. In effect, the documentary acts to detrivialize the melodrama--an essential function if the moral point being made is to be taken seriously. Some critics, such as Elaine Rapping, have taken the made-for-television movie seriously, but it is still widely castigated for its overly emotional representation of domestic disasters.

Unlike most American-made telefeatures The Boys of St. Vincent does not have a hero. The two main characters, Kevin Reevey who is one of the abused children, and Peter Lavin, the head of the orphanage, are not really figures with whom the audience can identify easily. In Part One Reevey is a badly abused child who barely speaks. Smith builds up tremendous sympathy for Reevey in Part One showing the child's desperate attempts to avoid the priest and escape from the orphanage. His youthfulness makes him an object of our compassion, particularly as he struggles to free himself and stand up to the predatory Lavin. Audience identification is much stronger with him in this part of the film. In Part Two Reevey becomes a troubled man, unable to deal with his past. A loner given to bouts of violence, and clearly troubled in his relationship with his girlfriend, he is a closed and emotionally withdrawn character with whom it is possible to sympathize, but not really identify.

Peter Lavin is certainly the centre of the film's controversy and also its insightful and troubling depiction of child molestation. The fact that Lavin is a handsome, intelligent and charismatic man as well as a brutal and overbearing pedophile is part of what makes The Boys of St. Vincent such a complex experience. In many child molestation films the child molester is a villain, pure and simple. This is never the case with the Smith film. The film in fact asks the audience to understand Lavin, and even gives the audience his point of view as he molests Kevin. This is a shocking moment in the narrative. As the first scene of molestation begins, the camera is placed in an observer's position. But as the sequence develops the camera moves close to Lavin's point of view as he fondles Kevin's body. When Kevin refuses the priest's advances, he is severely beaten, and a statue of a wounded Jesus juts into the frame as if to comment upon what is taking place. The next morning as Brother Lavin watches the boys shower, the camera shows an aesthetically pleasing and sensuous depiction of their naked bodies. How is the spectator expected to respond to those pictures of desire--when the object of that desire is a beautiful, nude ten year old boy seen through the eyes of a pedophile? This highly charged and controversial sequence was cut when The Boys of St. Vincent was shown on the A and E channel in the United States. This excision, however, undermines Smith's attempt to ask the audience to understand a pedophile rather than merely condemning him or turning him into a melodramatic villain.

Of further significance in The Boys of St. Vincent is Smith's critique of patriarchy as a whole with its patterns of dominance and submission worked throughout the educational system and the -religious and governmental orders. We are shown boys literally owned by the church, brutalized not only physically, but intellectually through the fear and guilt instilled in them in both church and classroom. Lessons are taught by hypocritical and tedious rote, and the boys are harshly disciplined for seemingly minor infractions. Boys is nothing if not a thorough critique of middle-class, patriarchal capitalism in its most brutalizing form. Interestingly Smith shows that both the boys and the priests are all victims of this system, that in fact this kind of behaviour is institutionalized and even traditional in orphanages.

 


The Boys of St. Vincent
Photo courtesy of Tele-Action

Except for one of the older boys, the janitor and one policeman no one is much outraged by what has gone on. Through The Boys of St. Vincent we are kept thoroughly off balance, not only by Smith's style, which tends to throw us into situations with few establishing shots, but also by the impossibility of identifying with any of the damaged characters in the fiction. Nor does the ending of the film bring any relief. Although the priests are brought to trial, Brother Lavin is neither healed nor forgiven; ironically, he is only able to confess his sins in the confessional, where he may in fact, be confessing to another child molester, and his confession never becomes public. We are never shown whether he has confessed his problems to his psychiatrist, and because the film ends before the verdict is given, we dnot have the satisfaction of knowing what will happen to him. The film ends with Lavin's wife demanding to know if he has molested his own sons--and no answer is forthcoming here either. Kevin Reevey, who has resisted all attempts to speak up at the trial, finally manages to testify, but we are left with no sense or either triumph or revenge. One of the other boys, who has become a prostitute and a drug addict, overdoses and dies before the trial is complete. This film does not offer us any comfortable assurances about the future, and by avoiding closure, even implies that this kind or crime does not go away. In a film which consistently violates convention, this may be the most difficult of all to face, since no morally reassuring note is sounded at the film's conclusion.


In the end, The Boys of St. Vincent fully develops the potential of the made-for-television movie. Although it has a high concept plot and is based upon a sensational news story, it violates many of the conventions the U.S. telefeature. Boys mounts a damning condemnation of both the Catholic Church and the government of Newfoundland. It asks the audience to consider a child molester as a human being, not merely a depraved monster. By controlling the worst excesses of the melodrama and adopting documentary techniques, it manages to become a believable and powerful depiction of a serious social problem, proving that the simplicity of the made-for-television movie does not have to equal simple-mindedness, and that made-for- television movies can become sites for significant, but accessible social critique.

-Jeannette Sloniowski

CAST

Peter Lavin ...........................................Henry Czerny Kevin Reevey........................................ Johnny Morina Kevin Reevey (25)............................ Sebastian Spence Brian Lunny.......................................... Ashley Billard Brian Lunny (30)................................Timothy Webber Billy Lunny................................... Jonathon Hoddinott Steven Lunny........................................... Brian Dodd Steven Lunny (25)................................. David Hewlett Sheilah .............................................Kristine Demers Detective Noseworthy............................. Brian Dooley Commission Lawyer .............................Sheena Larkin Chantal....................................................... Lise Roy Lenora................................................... Mary Walsh

PRODUCERS

Sam Grana, Claudio Luca

PROGRAMMING HISTORY

CBC
1993

FURTHER READING

Caughie, John. "Progressive Television and Documentary Drama. In, Bennett, Tony, et al., editors. Popular Film and Television. London: British Film Institute, 1981.

Goodwin, Andrew, et al. Drama-Documentary. London: British Film Institute, 1983.

Rapping, Elaine. The Movie of the Week: Private Stories, Public Events. Minneapolis, Minnesota: The University of Minnesota Press, 1992.

See also Canadian Programming in English; Docudrama