It’s not easy to explain Father Bob Maguire, a long-time Catholic parish priest from inner-city Melbourne, to those who reside outside the southern city. A wry, articulate presence in his many and varied media appearances – he’s quite probably the only clergyman who could host a radio show with John Safran – he’s been a tireless worker and fundraiser over many decades, putting in place and overseeing programs for runaway youth and the disadvantaged, as well as tending to the faith of his burgeoning flock. In other words, Father Bob is a beacon of decency and hope for the oft-troubled Catholic Church, which is, of course, why in 2009 they attempted to publicly force him into retirement.
"Deceptively insightful and sometimes profound"
In Bob We Trust, Lynn-Maree Milburn’s documentary about what ensued, was made on the run, literally shot with whatever was at hand as she tried to keep up with a then 75-year-old who is always on the move. But the seat of the pants feel shouldn’t obscure what is a deceptively insightful and sometimes profound study of a person whose dedication to the care of others comes with good humour and crafty contributions. Notions of charity and spiritual nurturing reside in these sometimes offhand encounters.
Director Milburn is part of the Ghost Pictures group with fellow filmmaker Richard Lowenstein (Dogs in Space) and cinematographer Andrew De Groot, and like their last film, a posthumous biography of revered underground musician Rowland S. Howard, In Bob We Trust begins in a church. Keeping Father Bob there, despite the support of his parish council, is the problem, and the documentary paints a clear picture of the divide in the Catholic Church between those serving the community and what Father Bob calls 'head office". Various archbishops won’t speak on camera, or allow the filmmaker access to meetings, but it only serves to reinforce the stifling and impersonal grip of church bureaucracy.
Several scripted scenes, including a take on The Seventh Seal’s metaphysical chess match with the subject and Safran as well as a hilariously brisk opening history of the Catholic Church, add to both the context and the picture’s yen for stylistic daring. Form matches subject in this case, with the aesthetic as freewheeling as any number of the commentaries Father Bob offers over his shoulder as he goes about trying to muster support while not actually breaking with the church.
Over three years the campaign doesn’t just build on both sides, it allows the filmmakers to capture the some of the people in Father Bob’s orbit, including former street kid Costas Vasiliou, who the priest first took into care in 1971 as a 10-year-old, and who stayed as an unpredictable but dedicated part of his life from then on. It’s hard not to think of how many headlines and punchlines, earnt by cases of child sex abuse, that the Catholic Church has generated over the last decade, but In Bob We Trust quietly makes the case for another side of the institution, one that might serve to put some balance back on the spiritual ledger. But whatever your view of the Catholic Church, In Bob We Trust is a bracing, entertaining, and committed viewing experience.