Coming off his first bona fide hit with Silence of the Lambs, Demme’s choice to follow it up with his smallest, most intimate work to date signals on which side he stands.
While historically located in the center of many lives, churches and their clergy are often disinclined to move beyond advisory and charitable functions, demonstrating a conservatism that’s often at odds with the fulfillment of those very roles. This mainly manifests as a refusal to wade into the prickly morass of political affairs, with some feeling that faith-based organizations have no place taking specific stands at all. Others, however, see churches as potential spearheads for conducting outreach and fomenting positive social change, an essential element of their efforts to serve the neighborhoods in which they operate. The American film industry, meanwhile, has traditionally maintained a similar wariness, possessing a huge potential for pushing progressive ideals, one which the profit-minded entities funding much mainstream work are often loath to engage with, ever fearful of alienating potential audience members.
Coming off his first bona fide hit with Silence of the Lambs, Jonathan Demme’s choice to follow it up with his smallest, most intimate work to date signals on which side he stands. The same goes for his cousin Robert Castle, an Episcopal minister known for clashing with church higher-ups, his devotion to social causes always placed above his career ambitions. Cousin Bobby finds the two relatives reconnecting, after having fallen out of touch as children 30-odd years earlier. As portrayed here, the two men reach an immediate understanding on a shared platform of values and conduct, both evincing a soft-toned, good-natured humanism that belies the ferocity of their devotion.
Telling his story himself, Castle lays out how a morally sturdy upbringing led him to a life of religious study, then further into social causes during his time at divinity school. Gradually radicalized in the turbulent ‘60s, he was eventually removed from the Newark diocese in which he worked due to affiliations with The Black Panthers and SDS that were considered unsavory by some. After spending years in rural Vermont, Castle was eventually summoned in the late ‘80s back to Harlem, an area pinned between the lingering effects of the crack epidemic and the gradual onset of gentrification.
His work here covered a variety of causes, serving as the voice crying out in the wilderness to the more staid, wealthy environment of the church’s main cathedral, located only 15 blocks south but an entire world away. His foils included the local police station, a running, news-making conflict with which drew Demme’s attention back to Castle. Instead of directly documenting that struggle, the director approaches the subject from a sidelong angle, aiming for a Les Blank-style docu-portrait that prizes the lyrical, abstract qualities of its subject over a concrete, figurative presentation.
This means that Castle is presented as an advocate for an underserved community, not a savior, and that scenes with him are largely focused on smaller work, petitioning Christmas Eve parishioners at the big cathedral downtown or patching a pothole on the street in front of his own church. This is literal ground-level activism, representative of the non-flashy fundamentals of routine service, filling in gaps that larger governmental structures can’t be bothered to fix themselves. In documenting such small moments and their effects, Demme builds up a sense of quiet power from a slim collection of everyday scenes, imagining family and community history as a means of charting how morality develops through extended, interconnected units.
This is achieved through old photos and archival footage, the happy family moments contrasted with scenes of simmering social unrest. In one painful scene, we hear of the tragic death of his teenaged son, see Castle silently weigh the burden of his own relationship to the event, then hear of the fate of the boy’s beloved dog, fatally struck by a car mere days later. This is presented by the family as a parable of God’s will working in mysterious but coherent fashion; the film fashions it as yet another locus of painful but insistent connection between people striving to forge stronger bonds around the void left by trauma, the same sort of linkage which connects this small, unassuming movie to contemporary events, on which it unfortunately still has many potential lessons to impart. In the last of these touches, Demme includes baby pictures of each of his collaborators over the end credits, a final reminder that each life begins as a fragile confluence at the branch end of a vast family tree, of how much implicit value that premise contains, and how much more room we all have to grow.