Movies and TV shows seldom offer favorable depictions of deeply religious people. HBO's film "Judgment," premiering at 9 tonight, is about a devout Catholic couple, all right, but one with a problem. The parish priest is molesting their little boy.
Is this a film premise that anyone could find attractive? In fact, Tom Topor's script is based on a true story -- one reported on the now-defunct CBS News show "West 57th" -- and doesn't go out of its way to sensationalize the grim details, at least not until the end.
It's a competent, compelling docudrama, but also one of those squirm-inducing films that seem, when it's all over, not worth the discomfort.
Except for the sensitive nature of the material, Topor failed to exert one single creative muscle to make this film stand out from all the other network movies based on exploitable news stories. Not enough of his scenes connect with one another, and there's a drag on the pacing.
One distinct plus, however, is Blythe Danner as the boy's mother, a stubborn member of a Louisiana diocese who is outraged that the church refuses to take stronger disciplinary action when she and eight other parents report to the monsignor about the priest's misbehavior.
She eventually learns that the church's coverup goes back years and that church leaders knew of the priest's affliction, yet failed to remove him from circulation.
This is meant to be a story not about sexual aberrations and their victims but about betrayal of a particularly cruel kind. It is also the saga of one determined couple attempting to battle an unresponsive bureaucracy whose chief concern is self-protection.
The thankless role of the priest is played as well as it probably could be by David Strathairn, so strikingly good as J. Robert Oppenheimer in the CBS docudrama "Day One." As the boy's father, Keith Carradine unfortunately does his same old twangy cowpoke routine, a coy collection of mannerisms that has grown increasingly irritating over countless repetitions.
Danner is completely believable and Carradine completely unbelievable. It's almost eerie.
In 1982, when the film opens, little Robbie is drafted by Father Aubert (the names have been changed for the film) to be an altar boy. "I want to take him on one of our little camping trips," the priest tells the parents. After Polaroiding Robbie and the other boys in the shower, Aubert instructs them, "Never tell anyone your sins -- except for God and father."
Aubert's sins are not depicted on camera but one gets the drift. The details become more specific as the relationship continues. It would seem the parents should have become more suspicious than they did when a doctor visiting Robbie tells them he sees evidence of "rectal bruising."
The film makes its case slowly but deliberately, and improves in the final third when Jack Warden arrives, outfitted in white whiskers, as a blunt, swaggering Southern attorney. But when he rehearses little Robbie for his stint on the witness stand, and makes him describe in detail what Father Aubert did to him, one's heart aches for the young actor (Michael Faustino) who had to learn these lines and simulate this particular agony.
"Judgment" falls into a singular category; it's a fairly good film about which one can nevertheless ask, "What good is it?"