From podcasts like Serial to Netflix’s Making A Murderer, serialized true crime narratives and documentaries have captured the attention of millions and lead to countless coffee shop conversations about whodunit and why.
At a glance, The Keepers appears to be a mini series in the same vein as the aforementioned works, advertised with the ominous tag line, “Who killed Sister Cathy?” The series purports to be investigating the mysterious death of the nun Sister Cathy Cesnik in the winter of 1969 providing in its first episode the logistical facts of where bodies were found and cars parked.
However, what the sparse first episode only hints at is that the murder is just a cog in a much deeper, darker tale winding in and around the Catholic Church and Baltimore police department.
With a priest undeniably characterized as evil by those subjected to his abuses, The Keepers is yet another document serving to illuminate the willful and intentional effort by the Catholic Church to protect its clergy from any repercussions stemming from abuse allegations through social and legal means. The toxic (and in this case deadly) effects of this far-reaching silencing are undeniably illustrated in the film.
The Keepers has a bifurcated narrative; it follows two threads of story telling, the first being the experience of the victims. Jane Doe, a woman who may have known about the details of the murder, comes forward in the 90’s only to have what is sadly an all too common accusation and persecution of victims of these kinds of crimes: Why didn’t you say anything?
Jane Doe is not alone, and the overwhelming number of folks affected by this case is staggering and the voices and testaments of these people is an essential narrative that should be told, and should be told now. The relentless attack and burden of proof on victims, the legality of recovered memories, and the statute of limitations on child sexual abuse are all delved into with a particularly personal touch.
The second thread running through The Keepers is the whodunit story of this cold case. Unfortunately, what director Ryan White fails to do is weave these two narrative threads together successfully with a craving for a more dynamic storytelling. The first episodes are practically still and calm with weighted breaths and a fine investigation of the narrative of the abuser, and then all in a rush the final episodes attempt to weave together several storylines. The filmmaker himself is hard pressed and excited, his voice—absent in the first sections of the series—is jarringly present from behind the camera in the final episodes of the series.
I understand White’s impulse to ask pointed questions to those we all suspect of foul play, but the ol’ show, don’t tell rule gets broken a few too many times including a bizarre section wherein White insists on reading correspondence from the Catholic Church aloud instead of using the already established text graphics.
There’s something about the soundtrack that makes you feel an unrelenting barrage of sadness. The sound design leaves something to be desired, and although I understand the impulse to underscore the painful moments and testimonies with weeping piano and stinging violins, after a while it just becomes too much.
The Keepers is telling an important story. A story that may have never been told if not for the efforts of two of Sister Cathy’s former students whose unbridled attention and dedication make them modern day heroes. The personal as political journey and far reaching specter of their compassion undeniably touched the lives of many. One cannot undo the damage of a crime, but one can decide that when the systems of justice and faith fail you, you can take things into your own hands.
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