James Rutenbeck’s Scenes from a Parish is the sort of documentary essay film that makes one pretty darn grateful for the 00.01% of the the federal budget that is granted to PBS. (That’s rounded up, by the way, PBS’s grant makes up for less than one-one hundredth of a percent, Or, if I can put it another way, it’s less than half what both campaigns (not counting independent, “non-primary” political action committees) have spent on this election to tell us about how the other is wasting money. Of course, you still might prefer your hard earned tax dollars go to making another weapon of mass destruction rather than to broadcast an earnest exploration about how ethnic diversity has polarized a single community in Lawrence, Massachusetts. More’s the pity.
Probably the best thing about Scenes from a Parish is the same thing that probably caused it to end up on PBS. Its refusal to be about any one person, to invest the bulk of its emotional energy and time into any one story arc, may well leave more restless viewers weaned on Hollywood fare or splashy, Michael Moore style documentaries wondering how they are supposed to feel, what they are supposed to think.
The closest we get to a protagonist is Paul O’Brien, a Harvard-education Catholic priest who leads St. Patrick’s in Lawrence and attempts to adapt to his area’s multi-ethnic landscape. As the film title would suggest, however, this documentary attempts to give us a cross-section of the parish, not just its leader. Some are resistant to change and say so openly. One woman claims she “gets nothing” out of a mass that incorporates the Spanish language. (I remember my father telling me once while we were living overseas that he could more or less follow the mass in Spanish because he was old enough to remember when it was all in Latin!) Another complains that since all the schools in Puerto Rico teach English, all immigrants in Lawrence do know English, they just don’t want to admit it.
Not all the conflicts are easily attributed to racism or prejudice. Some members of the congregation heed the call to devote time, resources, and, yes, money, towards those who are struggling and find that patience and charity is not always met with sustained appreciation, honesty, or even respect.
The tagline of Scenes from a Parish is “love thy neighbor just got a lot harder.” This suggests that the problems facing St. Patrick’s are new and more complex than what previous generations have had to face. I’m not so sure about that. In one of the best scenes in interview subject recalls that many of the Irish citizens arrived in America as a result of famine and sociopolitical decisions by the wealthy and powerful to export food for profit rather than to feed the hungry. Loving our neighbor has never been easier (or harder, depending on your point of view) than it is when you are called upon to love in deed and not just word.
“You will never do much for people, except by suffering for them” Abbe Huvelin once said. Scenes from a Parish shows a group of people that individually and collectively attempt to minister simply and directly to their neighbors in obedience to the teachings of their religion. We all have justifications for why we can’t do that and why our neighbors don’t deserve mercy, compassion, shelter or even food.
That’s a pity, too.