VENICE — In the shadow of the magnificent churches that crowd this ancient city, “Spotlight,” the movie about The Boston Globe’s award-winning series exposing the clergy sex abuse scandal in the Boston Archdiocese, premiered to sustained applause Thursday.
The drama detailing the newspaper’s dogged pursuit of a story that would rock the Catholic Church to its foundation is one of two highly anticipated Hollywood features debuting at the Venice Film Festival in which Boston plays a starring role. “Black Mass,” the saga of South Boston mobster James “Whitey” Bulger and his unholy alliance with the FBI, premieres Friday.
Directed by Tom McCarthy and featuring an ensemble cast that includes Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, and Stanley Tucci, “Spotlight” was well received at Thursday’s press screening, with critics interviewed afterward calling it engrossing without being melodramatic.
A.O. Scott, film critic for The New York Times, said what “Spotlight” lacks in spectacle — it’s about old-fashioned, shoe-leather journalism, after all — it makes up for in artful storytelling.
“It’s a detective story, fundamentally,” said Scott. “It’s very procedural and impressively told.”
In its review, Variety compared “Spotlight” to “All the President’s Men,” calling it “a superbly controlled and engrossingly detailed account” as well as “a magnificently nerdy process movie — a tour de force of filing-cabinet cinema.”
In recent years, the Venice Film Festival has been a harbinger of the Hollywood awards season, showcasing a slate of movies with strong Oscar prospects. Just a year ago, Keaton, who plays former Globe assistant managing editor Walter Robinson in “Spotlight,” was here to premiere “Birdman,” which ultimately won the Academy Award for best picture.
Held on Lido, a sandbar turned sleepy beach resort across the lagoon from hordes of tourists loitering in the heat at Piazza San Marco, the Venice Film Festival is the world’s oldest film festival, and may rival Cannes for most glamorous. Movie stars, breezily attired in linen suits and summer dresses, typically arrive at historic Palazzo del Cinema in wood-paneled water taxis.
“Spotlight,” which will screen at this month’s Toronto International Film Festival and open in theaters Nov. 6, is the story of the Globe’s investigation into the Boston Archdiocese’s practice of protecting pedophile priests. The movie begins with a seemingly innocuous request by Martin Baron, then in his first days as Boston Globe editor, for a follow-up to a column in the previous day’s paper about the Rev. John Geoghan, a defrocked priest who was moved from parish to parish over many decades despite evidence that he was abusing children.
In Hollywood fashion, “Spotlight” compresses months of painstaking reporting — locating and interviewing victims, poring over court filings and church documents — into two hours. The movie makes clear there was initial reluctance to confront the Boston Archdiocese — and to potentially alienate Globe subscribers — but the paper’s investigative Spotlight team began to work on the story, encouraged by Baron, played with appropriate understatement by Schreiber.
Ruffalo and McAdams portray Globe reporters Michael Rezendes and Sacha Pfeiffer, while John Slattery plays former editor Ben Bradlee Jr. Tucci is particularly good as Mitchell Garabedian, the unrelenting attorney for many of the victims.
“Garabedian can be a difficult, abrasive personality and Tucci is spot-on,” WBUR reporter David Boeri said after Thursday’s screening.
But “Spotlight” does not cover the Globe in glory, and that makes it more credible to some who saw it Thursday. Several times in “Spotlight,” clergy abuse victims and their advocates say they tried to get the Globe’s attention but the paper did not pursue their claims.
“[On film] newspapers are usually either cynical and determined to destroy people’s lives or they’re crusading idealists,” said Scott, the Times critic. “[‘Spotlight’] shows the newspaper as a fallible institution staffed by human beings who make mistakes.”
Addressing a press conference after the screening, McCarthy said he doesn’t expect the Catholic Church to comment on the movie or “change substantially any time soon.”
“I expect no reaction,” said the director, who was raised in a Catholic household and graduated from Boston College. “I would love for Pope Francis and the cardinals and bishops and priests to see this. Films are made to be shared in our community, and I include them in our community.”
Ruffalo said he hopes the pope sees it and uses it “to begin to right those wrongs. . . . We’re hoping the pope will use this sober and judicious story to begin healing the wounds the church also received.”
The Globe series, which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 2003, had repercussions far beyond Boston: Similar scandals were uncovered elsewhere in the United States and around the world; the laity rebelled; church policies for handling abuse allegations were rewritten; and costs related to abuse claims topped $2 billion in the United States alone.
And there was one more. At the end of “Spotlight,” the audience learns that Cardinal Bernard Law, who had resigned following the Globe series, was eventually reassigned to the Patriarchal Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome. The crowd at Thursday’s screening erupted in laughter.
Mark Shanahan can be reached at email@example.com .