In Bob We Trust

IN BOB WE TRUST. Documentary with Fr Bob Macguire and John Saffran. Directed by Lynn- Maree Milburn. 104 minutes. Rated PG (mild themes and coarse language).

With a title like that, there is an air of divinity attributed to the larger-than-life subject of this very well-made documentary, Fr Bob Maguire of the archdiocese of Melbourne.

The context of the film is the requirement of all parish priests and bishops to offer their resignation from the position at the age of 75. It is low-key to say that Bob was not willing to go from his parish, Sts Peter and Paul, in South Melbourne. At the top of the poster is a statement that this is a conflict of biblical proportions, a David and Goliath struggle. With the towering presence of Bob throughout the film, one suspects at times that Archbishop Hart, the definite villain of the piece, might be the David!

‘Who will rid us of this troublesome priest?’ – Henry II on St Thomas a’Beckett.

This is a partisan documentary. It is Bob Maguire’s campaign against his removal from the parish, the film-makers and photographers following Bob around for quite some time, shooting footage in the church, in his presbytery (and with his dog), in the streets, outside the James Good Building where the Archbishop has his office. There is lots of Bob to camera – not hesitating to give his opinions of the archbishop, sometimes muttering the word ‘fascist’ to camera.

A note at the end says that both Denis Hart and George Pell (shown at the end going into the Victorian Inquiry into sexual abuse) were offered the opportunity to be interviewed but declined.

Bob is nothing if not articulate – though very extroverted in manner, in the vein of ‘how do I know what I think until I’ve said it!’ This makes for a lot of repartee which can be quite amusing, though making an audience laugh does not necessarily mean that you are right. Over the years, Bob has developed, even cultivated, a persona which many audiences, even outside of Melbourne or Victoria, will have heard on many radio interviews (excerpts here from studio interviews with John Saffran and with Neil Mitchell – the film also includes Neil Mitchell questioning Denis Hart about the resignation issue) and on television, especially on the ABC and SBS. He is the bluff, rough and ready priest, something of an ecclesiastical ‘shock jock’, glad to be a bloody stirrer, ever ready to speak out about bullshit, with an accent that favours a slangy approach and a larrikin tone and a blokey dropping of g’s at the ends of words.

On the other hand, he has lots of Shakespeare references, Churchill quotes and mention of theology books which belie the bluff exterior and voice. Often advising those near him, if they have not got the reference, to look it up or Google it.

One of the clever devices for the film is the framing of the story as a benign spoof of the scene from Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, where Death plays chess with the Knight and they discuss life and fate, with John Saffran, bespectacled as Death and Bob dressed as the Knight, reminding us that his battle is a crusade. The film goes back to this black and white seaside chess joust throughout the film.

Another device is a long collage at the beginning of the film, incorporating a great deal of classic art pieces of Jesus Christ, intercut with an impressive number of brief clips from biblical films, including De Mille’s The King of Kings, The Ten Commandments, King of Kings, The Greatest Story Ever Told, Pasolini’s Gospel According to St Matthew (although the commentary on St Paul is accompanied by Finlay Currie as St Peter in Quo Vadis). And, all the while there is Bob’s voiceover history of the Church, very larrikin-style in vocab and observations, comic but not designed to stand up to close scrutiny for accuracy.

After we have settled into the dimensions of the Crusade, with interventions by ardent supporters from South Melbourne parish, we move back to Bob’s ardent charity work on the streets of Melbourne, and get some glimpses of his growing up and his family story. There are some moving examples shown of people he helped from the streets to survive and find some dignity.

It is entertaining to listen to and watch Bob’s primary school teacher, Sister Maria Kavanagh, at the end of the film recounting the story of Bob’s autobiographical stories and imaginings when he was at school and at the seminary in Weribee (where, in a final story, he finishes up becoming a bishop, dying and lying in state).

What we finish up getting out of the film is a portrait of Bob and his vision of his priesthood and his life in the Catholic Church, more at the edges than in the centre. Yet, for many in Melbourne he has become the face of the Church, something that this film reinforces. With his blunt remarks and criticisms, and his jocoseness and his ironies, he makes it easier to be critical of authorities. A pity they didn’t take part in the film. It would have been interesting to listen to a to-and-fro between Denis Hart and Bob and discover that, perhaps, the archbishop might have had a point or two in his favour.

But, Bob, age 79 at the time of the release of the film, is still battling on, working for his charities, and that the Capuchins moved into the South Melbourne presbytery – their superior makes a sympathetic appearance.

However one responds to the on-screen Bob Maguire, we can say that Lynn- Maree Milburn knows how to put a film together and tell a story.

Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

Apparition Films.

Out October 17 2013.