Released: Film Review

This amateurish doc sings the praises of a noble-sounding nonprofit.

Director Phil Messina features the stories of four rehabilitated criminals who wound up in prison and turned their lives around.

A missed opportunity to bring real-world stories to life for viewers lucky enough never to have experienced life in a correctional institution, Phil Messina's Released uses a hodgepodge of doc and theatrical strategies to let four ex-cons tell their tales. Well intentioned but amateurish, it is only likely to connect in special engagements for audiences made up of cons or their loved ones.

Billed as an adaptation of a "play" called The Castle, the film's source material is more like a confessional storytelling session: Three men and a woman sit on a bare stage recounting lives that began in poverty and violence, led to various forms of incarceration, and were redeemed by an evidently very successful transitional program whose New York residential facility is known as The Castle.

The stories are, for the most part, strongly compelling: Listening to a man describe a family where children were forced into dogfight-like battles by adults, for instance, and then hearing that the juvenile home meant to "rescue" him, crawling with child molesters, was worse than any time he spent as an adult in prison, cements a viewer's conviction that, in some environments, it's a miracle when a child doesn't grow into a criminal.

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But the stories' power is diminished in several ways: Though the four subjects speak naturally in traditional doc-interview format, we frequently see them in a stage setting where, being non-actors, they sound over-rehearsed and stiff. Worse, Messina (adapting a stage production conceived by David Rothenberg) cuts constantly between their stories, breaking up the narratives for no reason other than variety and making it almost impossible to become invested in a single subject's life.

When the tales of hardship and tragedy reach their turnaround points, with an acceptance-based program (run by others who've done time) welcoming them back to freedom, the film falls into the idiom of the infomercial; while it will likely encourage current convicts to ask about The Castle when they're up for parole, the tone may leave outsiders less able to appreciate the accomplishments -- college degrees, loving marriages, jobs that do good for others -- of these former thieves, killers and drug dealers.

Cast: Vilma Ortiz Donovan, Kenneth Harrigan, Casimiro Torres, Angel Ramos

Director: Phil Messina                  

Producers: Matt Coleman, Martin Feinberg, Eric Krebs, Philip F. Messina

Director of photography: Frederic Fasano

Editors: Martin Feinberg, Phil Messina

No rating, 73 minutes