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Review: The camera is a conscientious, gentle witness in the boldly told ‘Procession’

Three men in the documentary “Procession.”
Ed Gavagan, from left, Michael Sandridge and Dan Laurine in the documentary “Procession.”
(Netflix)

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The six gray-haired Midwestern men featured in Robert Greene’s documentary “Procession” have the most ordinary of names: Tom, Dan, Joe, Ed, Michael and Mike. What hasn’t allowed them to live ordinary lives, however, is their trauma as survivors of childhood sexual assault by Catholic priests in Kansas City, a shared pain hardly lessened by how difficult it’s been to secure justice from courts or the Church.

“Procession” isn’t one more outrage story, however. It’s a bold collaboration with these men as they gather in Kansas City to embark on an extended form of dramatic therapy that involves writing and acting out scenes as a way of addressing trauma through role-playing and theatricality. Art as healing, yes, but also creating as community.

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The film crew was there not only to document the project, which was guided by a trained therapist and in some instances involved revisiting places of trauma, but to also consult on and film the men’s scenes. These were often heroically set in literal and memory spaces of darkest meaning for them, sometimes genre-influenced, and full of triggering symbolism regarding the Church’s easily wielded power.

The result, from the empathetic verité to the aesthetic diversity of the various scenes, is one of the more extraordinary cinematic hybrids of form and feeling in recent memory. But more essentially, one that honors the men’s pain and courage — and, movingly, their inner artistry — as they try to help each other. There’s simply no other film like it.

It could have gone sideways easily. Of late, Greene has been nonfiction cinema’s insistent iconoclast, provocatively blending performance and reality in films such as “Kate Plays Christine” and “Bisbee ’17.” But here, he eschews previous efforts’ experimental strutting for an abiding sensitivity, perhaps realizing that these men’s brave commitment to turning terrible memory into cathartic invention is too valuable and delicate to present as some arty look-what-I-did treatise.

It makes for two hours of excavation, contextualizing and release that is wholly devoted to the exploratory hearts of its subjects, and recognizing the journey’s impact. When we need to hear an “Are you OK?” or see someone show care, we do, the editing almost uncanny about it. Other times, the camera is a conscientious but gentle witness, finding details, angles, in-the-moment metaphors and framing that supports the story the men need to tell. Observational documentaries are by nature intrusive, but “Procession,” miraculously, never feels that way — you sense humane engagement, not imposition.

Individually, the men are thoroughly compelling figures — cracking wise one moment, their voice simply cracking the next. Their dedication to the project, and to each other, is invigorating and touching throughout. Ed, a tough contractor still trying to get his abuser indicted, chooses “All That Jazz” as a montage touchstone for his scene contrasting rituals of baptism and abuse. Michael, a still-religious interior decorator with a fragile countenance, proves a helpful, intelligent collaborator on the men’s visual schemes. Location scout Dan, good-natured and funny, says he’s there to help the guys, but realizes the need to reckon with his own unresolved turbulence, as does beefy, friendly Tom, who can’t share his story for legal reasons, but acts in the others’ scenes like the ultimate team player.

The more outwardly broken figures are Joe, a quiet-voiced counselor with nightmares who allows some of the guys to help him find the lakehouse where his abuse took place, and Mike, all roiling anger, whose scene is a rageful telling-off of the Church review board that denied him justice.

The men decided to cast one boy as their younger selves for each scene, a kid named Terrick, whose maturity and placid strength appears to help each man see themselves less as victims and more like survivors. The thick air of lost youth and live wounds isn’t lost on Terrick, either, with the camera catching him gently telling Ed after filming his scene, “I tried my best to tell your story.” That’s really all the beautifully made “Procession” does too, attentively, respectfully and compassionately.

'Procession'

Rated: R, for language

Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes

Playing: Starts Nov. 19, Laemmle Glendale; The Bay Theater, Pacific Palisades; also on Netflix


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