By Gautaman Bhaskaran
Boston has had a notorious reputation. In the 1960s, there was this Boston Strangler, who killed 13 women before he was caught and jailed for life. He had this uncanny ability to convince women to let him inside their homes, where he raped and murdered them.
Curiously Boston has had other kinds of notoriety as well — as we saw in two of the movies at the ongoing 72nd edition of the Venice Film Festival.
One of them was Scott Cooper’s extremely engaging Black Mass — about a man who got the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) firmly in his grip as he went about kidnapping and murdering several men and women with total abandon. Johnny Depp plays this villain to perfection.
In this blood-curdling crime drama, Depp is no handsome hero — as we have all known him to be. With a receding hairline, a really bad set of teeth and a spine chilling gaze that darts across in seamlessly swift movements, our man Depp gives his career best performance in Black Mass. He is James “Whitey” Bulger, whose bone chilling methods in the movie are so very authentically portrayed that one literally forgets one is watching Johnny Depp, that good looker — who in his earlier gangster films was mostly dashing and debonair. And utterly lovable.
Such phenomenal change in appearance calls for sheer guts, and one saw this even at the press conference Depp gave soon after the screening of Black Mass. To a mischievous question about the dogs he was told to remove from Australia, he quipped that he ate them all up! He was re-enacting Bulger’s vile — a Boston gangster who throttles a prostitute to death and then calmly walks into a dinner party. Later, he would pulp a police informer into a bloody mess, although Bulger himself was one in an unholy alliance with the FBI — an alliance that helped him get rid of all the rival gangs in Boston. Really, Depp in Black Mass is nothing like the wistfully sweet charmer one has seen him as in Tim Burton movies.
Based on a book by the same name by Boston Globe journalists, Black Mass tells the story of Bulger, a lowly Irish-American hoodlum from the south side of the city who became a virtual kingpin of the underworld there — largely because of the help he got from the FBI. An agent from the organisation, John Connolly, who grew up along with Bulger and greatly admired him, persuades the gangster to turn informer in exchange for protection. Bulger is only too happy with this arrangement, which helps him bust the Italian mafia and then take over.
Black Mass is a haunting portrayal of the Boston underworld of the 1970s. The bad men have long sideburns and long hair, while the FBI agents wear neat looking suits with broad lapels and ties with huge knots.
And Bulger wearing blue eye lenses is surrounded by a motley group of men in his Winter Hill gang. We have Earl Brown as Chubby, Johnny Martorano, the group’s wily executioner, Stephen as Rifleman Flemmi and so on in a film that is linear and appears delightfully old worldly.
Depp — who steals the show from start to finish — told the Press conference that he did try meeting the real Bulger, now in prison. But he refused. His lawyer however visited the sets twice and was bowled over by Depp’s “impersonation” of Bulger. What more do movie villains need? What more does an actor need?
Another Festival film, Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight, highlights sexual abuse by the clergy in Boston. The movie narrates the unbelievably true story of Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Spotlight” team of investigative journalists, who in 2002 shock the city and the world by exposing the Catholic Church’s systematic cover-up of widespread paedophilia, perpetrated by more than 70 local priests.
The expose had major ramifications in the Catholic world, and even caused major upsets in the Vatican. Dozens and dozens of children had been sexually molested, and at the end of Boston Globe’s probe, it became clear that church’s protection for the predatory priests was far wider than ever imagined before.
Actor Mark Ruffalo, who is one of the reporters in the film, issued a dramatic plea at a media conference soon after Spotlight was screened. He called on the Pope, to “begin to heal the wounds sustained not just by the survivors, but all the people that lost their faith because of the revelations”. In a direct address to Pope Francis, he said: “I hope the Vatican will use this film to begin to right those wrongs, not just for the victims and their destroyed lives, but for all the people who have lost their way. We are hoping the Pope will use this sober and, I believe, judicious story to begin healing the wounds the church also received.”
However, director McCarthy said he was not hopeful that there would be any meaningful change within the Catholic church. “I remain pessimistic. I was raised Catholic — but words are one thing, actions are another. I have high hopes on Francis, but what actually changes remains to be seen. To be honest, I expect no reaction at all. Nothing would make me happier to be proven wrong. I would love the Pope, the cardinals and bishops and priests to see Spotlight. I don’t think anyone can think this is an attack on the church: everything in the movie has been well reported on and documented.”
Indeed so. As I watched the film, it became apparent that religion has always had some kind of hold on the masses that was just so difficult to shake off or even ignore, and priests were upholders of faith. And when they erred, they were seldom questioned or challenged — even when they perpetrated a crime as grave and terribly sinister as sexual abuse of young children.
And, mind you, this cuts across religions.
Gautaman Bhaskaran is covering the Venice Film Festival, and may be e-mailed at [email protected]
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