Saturday, December 26, 2009

Scenes from Lawrence, MA

It is highly unusual to see a Catholic priest positively portrayed in a documentary film these days. However, if ever there was a media-friendly Father, it would be the Harvard-educated Paul O’Brien. Yet, his Saint Patrick’s Parish in Lawrence, Massachusetts seems a world away from the Ivy League in James Rutenbeck’s Scenes of a Parish (trailer here), which airs on PBS’s Independent Lens this coming Tuesday in most markets.

Poverty has become the defining characteristic of Lawrence. Briefly the home of poet Robert Frost, the industrial city’s population was long dominated by working-class Irish and ethnic Europeans. In recent years, a new wave of Hispanic immigration has radically altered Lawrence’s demographics. To reach out to his new parishioners, Father O’Brien began holding bilingual masses—a development that does not sit well with some of the flock. (Perhaps he should ask for special dispensation to return to the Latin mass. That way everyone would be on an equally confused footing.)

We meet several of the good people of Lawrence, MA, and by-and-large, they are good people. Many are involved in St. Patrick’s various Catholic charities, extending a helping hand to their less fortunate neighbors. Indeed, the culmination of their efforts is the construction of the Cor Unum Meal Center to feed the city’s needy. It is a laudable private effort spearheaded by the outspoken priest, with the occasional fundraising assistance of his Harvard classmate, Conan O’Brian.

Father O’Brien certainly emerges as a strong personality in Scenes. Unfortunately, this is not always the case with his parishioners, who drift in and out of the film without Rutenbeck firmly establishing a sense of their personality. The most notable exception is Sarah McCord, a bright prospective college student, whose relationship with her developmentally challenged brother forms the film’s most memorable subplot. Rutenbeck clearly plays political favorites too, casting those who object to bilingual masses in the worst possible light, while never asking why economic conditions are so depressed in Lawrence in comparison to more affluent cities of comparable size across the country.

There are quite inspiring works of selfless giving documented in Scenes, as well as some rather shallow social commentary. Though the opening of Cor Unum functions as a de facto climax, Scenes lacks a strong dramatic arc. It is an effective commercial for the power of private charitable enterprises, which is not without value. Ultimately though, Scenes is all too aptly named, playing like an extended News Hour report on poverty. It airs on most PBS affiliates this Tuesday (12/29), including New York’s Thirteen (at 10:00 PM EST).