In Bob We Trust

First published here.

Over three years, filmmakers Lynn-Maree Milburn, Andrew De Groot, and Richard Lowenstein covered the struggle to overturn Father Bob Maguire’s forced retirement as parish priest of South Melbourne. He had held the position for four decades, becoming a moral fixture of his community, and a troubling dissident within the Church because of various stances that always placed an overriding care for other human beings above any and all doctrine upon which the power and authority of religious institutions rest.

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Absolutely crucial to the significance of this documentary is its sense of improvisation. This flows mainly from the fact it was cobbled together on the run across those three years, which lends the movie an abiding quality ofroughness. The exceptions to this are the extraordinary opening montage that covers the historical development of Christianity and the Catholic Church, and odd punctuations that, in a seemingly trivial fashion, re-imagine The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman 1957) with Father Bob as the knight against John Safran as a weak-voiced Death.

These moments aside, most of the material here is captured and put together without polish: lit and composed without flair or fuss, and edited with an almost casual disregard for easy coherence of players, events, and chronology. This reflects the filmmakers’ refusal to make these players and events ‘sit still’ for a more attractive and easily grasped portrait. What we see instead are people as they figure out how to live their lives in response to each other, and to changing events and places, on a timescale of moments, weeks, years, and, in one deeply upsetting passage, lifetimes.

What this reveals is the movie’s knowledge that the improvised and unpredictable human everyday is crucial to the worth of Father Bob and his community with others. This is ranged against the values of the Church, which are characterised by paralysing bureaucratic fixity, and the morally bereft language of market rationality. In capturing Father Bob’s struggles against these forces, the movie devastatingly reveals a contemporary life hostile to the kind of generous faith in humanity that can sustain belief in the idea of religion not as a calcified sacrament, but a vitalised and revitalising bond between people in the everyday struggle against suffering and despair; in Father Bob’s inspiring words, a “ligament” for humanity.

This is seen in the fascinating centre of the best documentary filmmaking: the small details of the world, and of human inhabitation of it, as they pass by. Compare the wearing of wood on church pews as testament to years of communal tradition and participation against the hygienic demand for compartmentalised purity, the worship of the ‘new’ and the ‘now’, in the stainless steel and acid-etched glass of the Church’s headquarters. Note Father Bob’s energising unpredictability of movement, speech, gesture, thought; hold this against the codification and ritual cant of prescribed Church ceremony.

The contemporary world is one in which the language and forms of bureaucracy and market rationality are so ingrained their presence and force on our lives is often internalised without our noticing, desiccating our more human capacities to attend to each other and our world. It is a world that makes the film’s references to The Seventh Seal more than just knowing pop-culture nods, but deeply grave evocations of the crisis we confront in “the silence of God,” a crisis most contemporary Atheists lack the stomach to face.

In this context, In Bob We Trust is a vital and urgent movie. It reminds us of what is at stake in our every action. It is nothing less than the sustenance or suffocation of a properly and more fully human world, what Bob calls the life of “immanence” we all inhabit, “the kingdom of heaven” on Earth.

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