In an episode of BBC sitcom Yes, Prime Minister, PM Hacker is deliberating on nominations for the Archbishop of Canterbury. In choosing between an agnostic and a radical, Sir Humphrey tells him, “the Queen is inseparable from the church of England.” And what of God? “I think he is what is called an optional extra.”
I couldn’t help but think of this punch line when watching In Bob We Trust (Lynn-Maree Milburn), a documentary portrait of Melbourne’s “larrikin priest” Father Bob Maguire, whose devotion to God can’t be faulted, it’s the institution that’s the problem. The film begins (after Fr. Bob’s hilarious five minute history of Catholicism) with his being “invited” to retire on his 75th Birthday. The fallacy of the “invitation” unravels quickly: this is a tall order from on high (up the ladder, that is). Fr. Bob’s hands are tied, caught between his call to serve his community and servitude to the institution of Roman Catholicism.
And this dilemma speaks volumes – the gap between what the Catholic Church preaches, and what it practices. We witness Fr. Bob’s unflinching devotion to the service of his community, through his outreach to the homeless, the understanding and kindness he shows to the downtrodden, particularly his work in helping victims of the “drug wars.” He truly lives his life as a self-described patron of the “unloved and unlovely.”
In a time when parishes are amalgamating, closing, spreading priests thin and reducing services, Fr. Bob fostered a thriving parish community and met his bottom line: putting butts on pews. In return, he was pressured to resign prematurely. Various factors come in to play: his pragmatic ethics (supportive of gay rights), his dangerously popular public profile (close to 100K followers on twitter compared to Cardinal George Pell’s less than 600), his strong support of Vatican II (in the face of revisionists like Pell) and his refusal to keep tight-lipped on sexual abuse within the church (feeling obliged to report disputed claims made against Pell despite Pell being Archbishop of Melbourne at the time).
That this film could have come out swinging at figures like Pell or Archbishop of Melbourne Denis Hart, and didn’t, is testament to the integrity of the film’s purpose. Milburn refuses to vilify the personalities involved, rather their absence from the piece (by choice) means they malign themselves into the crumbling, corrupt institution in Rome. It really is about Fr. Bob’s David and Goliath battle between the expected obsequiousness of the priesthood, and his own moral compass fostered through a lifetime of empathy and experience. The institution wants to be among Gods, Fr. Bob is happy among men.
In Bob We Trust’s director Lynne-Maree Milburn willingly lets Fr. Bob’s no holds barred rollicking larrikinism – at once biting, hilarious, witty, intelligent and playful – dominate the piece, which was thoroughly enjoyable, though too much cutting of pauses and breaths in the edit was at times distracting. Fr. Bob’s meanderings are punctuated by moments of revelation and honesty: overcome by grief for the loss of his friend in a radio interview, wandering the emptied out rectory with Frank the dog, exploring his old seminary and contemplating the fate of his class mates, and sitting alone in his new, smaller quarters are all beautiful moments in the film that speak for themselves. The comic vignettes where Death (played by John Safran) interviews Fr. Bob over a game of chess are an ingenious device that structure the narrative without invading the text with the presence of a narrator.
In Bob We Trust does justice to a captivating Australian figure to whom we should all be paying attention, whether it is for his courage to speak up, or to be inspired by his humanist example to show a little understanding, and be kinder to one another.
In Bob We Trust is now showing in most Australian capital cities. You can check out session times here: http://inbobwetrustmovie.com
Support documentary filmmakers, independent cinemas as well as Fr. Bob by seeing it now.