Now on Netflix, The Catholic School is a horrific BOATS (Based On A True Story) movie based on an incident known as the Circeo Massacre, in which two women were tortured and raped, one of them murdered, by three upper-middle-class young men. The events were fictionalized in Edoardo Albinati’s award-winning novel The Catholic School, here adapted by director Stefano Mordini from 1,200 pages to 106 minutes. As it follows the peer group from an all-boys school that spawned the three perpetrators, the film makes plenty of inferences about their background and upbringing, thus setting it up as a potentially provocative watch.
The Gist: A muffled voice calls for help from inside the trunk of a white Fiat. A sweaty young man hurries away; a passerby hears the woman’s pleas. Flash back six months: a priest leads two rows of Catholic school boys, wearing Speedos, in calisthenics. Voiceover narration: “It was 1975, and violence was commonplace.” That’s Edo (Emanuele Maria Di Stefano) sharing his point-of-view. Is the violence commonplace in society or just in his high-tuition private Catholic high school? Likely both. But a group of seniors is being taken to task for assaulting a schoolmate and breaking his glasses. Gianni (Francesco Cavallo) sits down to face the music; his dad (Ricardo Scamarcio) gets him off the hook by promising to donate to the school, then takes him home and beats him with a belt.
We meet a smattering of Edo’s classmates: Smart kid Arbus (Giulio Fochetti), who’s cramming two years of schooling into one so he can graduate early. Pik (Alessandro Cantalini), a hopeless goofus who’s the son of a famous actress (Jasmine Trinca) who’s having an affair with their handsome, leather-jacketed classmate Jervi (Guido Quaglione). Angelo (Luca Vergoni), who we recognize as the sweaty young man from the opening scene, who psychologically terrorizes his brother Salvatore (Leonardo Ragazzini) for being gay. Gioacchino (Andrea Lintozzi) is outed as the only one in the group who actually believes in God; his sister Lia (Beatrice Spata) carries a huge torch for Jervi, who absolutely will take advantage.
The story hops back and forth between scenes occurring months before the abduction, and those just hours prior. The boys drink and carouse. They fumble in the dark with girls. They watch from afar as their priest headmaster picks up a prostitute. They easily bypass rules set forth by their inattentive parents. They study. They talk about a friend who’s just been released from prison. Pik plays with a sword, holding it to his mother’s throat as she sleeps. Gianni fires a shotgun, hunting pheasant with his father, who advises him to be cold-blooded and ruthless. Angelo and Gianni befriend two girls, Donatella (Benedetta Porcaroli) and Rosaria (Federica Torchetti), and take them to a remote villa, where the boys hold a gun to the girls’ heads and spend an ungodly amount of time physically and psychologically brutalizing them.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: The Catholic School boasts some of the fodder of a coming-of-age tale like Dead Poets Society with the immersive period-drama feel of House of Gucci crossed with David Chase’s ’70s memoir Not Fade Away – and by the end the movie takes a drastic turn and finds itself standing in the shadow of Michael Haneke.
Performance Worth Watching: In limited screen time, and despite being stuck with a grossly underdeveloped character, Porcaroli finds an expressive, nonverbal dramatic foothold in Donatella’s trauma.
Memorable Dialogue: Edo’s voiceover: “The three pillars of our education were persuasion, threat and punishment.”
Sex and Skin: Full-frontal nudity in extended scenes of occasionally graphic sexual assault.
Our Take: There’s a scene in The Catholic School where our group of boys – psychos, good kids, bystanders and the bullied alike – are subject to a lesson on morality in front of a classical painting portraying Christ being beaten by six men. Their instructor engages with his pupils, all of them following a series of circular-logic back-and-forth parries and dodges that put Christ and assailants on the same moral ground. And then, the movie loudly implies, we wonder why some of these young men might commit heinous, violent crimes.
So it’s religion’s fault. And the parents’ fault. And the money’s fault. And the school’s fault. And society’s fault. And, to go broader, hypocrisy’s fault. Let’s go broader still: It’s God’s fault! Lousy God – always creating people who do awful, awful things.
Yet by extrapolating thusly (tongue in cheek, of course), I lend the film a clarity it lacks. The manner in which it introduces the sprawling cast of characters is sloppy and confusing, and it further muddies the proceedings with its senseless narrative time-hopping. It frequently diverts from Edo’s point-of-view, and it soon becomes obvious that the big-picture statements in the narration are an adhesive applied to the film’s many moving parts, which threaten to spring apart at any moment. Some of the mini-arc subplots serve to enrich a portrait of a community built on exclusivity and dysfunction, which would be fine in a 10-episode miniseries, but are extraneous in a feature – even Edo, our narrator, feels like an eminently cuttable vestigial appendage in a movie that could really use more quality screen time for fewer characters.
Like, say, the victims of the crime. Porcaroli and Torchetti are stripped nude and subject to horrors in an extended finale that veers into exploitation territory. What began as a nostalgia piece with hints of darkness becomes Funny Games, but without the bleak fascination Haneke inspires in audiences (those that can hang on until the end, anyway). There’s a moment in The Catholic School where a student is admonished for turning in a paper praising Adolf Hitler, and it conjures the vibes of budding fascism we saw in Haneke’s bleak coming-of-age fiction The White Ribbon. Haneke’s films surge forward with searingly unstoppable inevitability. The Catholic School rolls and sputters and stalls, posturing like a bold statement, but ultimately delivering only muddled implications about why bad people do bad things.
Our Call: SKIP IT. The Catholic School is a weird mixture of immersive period piece and distasteful exploitation. It has grand ambitions, but doesn’t come close to fulfilling them.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at johnserbaatlarge.com.