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Penitentia (2023) Review

Penitentia opens as Alejandro “Ale” Villacano (Glenn Stanton, Altered, The Walking Dead) getting ready for work, which in his case means applying flesh coloured tape and makeup to cover a tattoo in his forearm. We briefly see him at work as a corporate attorney, and then at an anniversary dinner with his fiancé Beth (Kate Flanagan, Antidote, Irrational Man) who also happens to be the daughter of his boss Tom (Robert Lewis Stephenson, The Sweeper, An Incident in San Ysidro).

Alejandro has a lot to be thankful for, after spending time in jail for a crime he was eventually cleared of, he’s turned his life around and has a very bright future ahead of him. And to protect that future, he does his best to keep his past hidden. But his past finds him in the form of his old cellmate JD (Rob Wilson, The Thing About Harry, Alex/October), whom he runs into while leaving the restaurant. Telling him “I’m not that kind of lawyer” he turns him down without even listening to his story.

Penitentia Ale Beth in Office

It’s not until his former mentor, and the man who gave him his start in the legal profession, Marvin Weissman (Michael W. Schwartz, Linda Lovelace for President, The Last Sonata), gets involved that he agrees to help JD and his sister Shareen (Natasha Coppola-Shalom, The Inquisition of Camilo Sanz, What Happened Last Night) on a pro bono basis.

Penetenia is the first feature by writer/director Chris Lawing, who has previously made a pair of shorts, Greg’s Going to Rehab and Liberty. It’s also a personal one. The character of Marvin Weissman based on his own father, Jim Lawing, who was a member of the national board of directors for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and an active leader in the ACLU of Kansas.

Penitentia Ronnie JD in Hotel

He’s wrapped that tribute to him in a somewhat familiar story of someone whose ambitions have led him to hide his past, and to turn his back on what he was taught was right. It’s also a thriller, Alejandro, working with an investigator named Shelly (Rusty Schwimmer, The Belko Experiment, The Perfect Storm) find that they’ve taken on a case that involves Ronnie’s (Chris Bylsma, They Wait in the Dark, El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie) crew of drug dealers and corruption at the prison Shareen’s being held in.

And as the case becomes more complex and reaches into some uncomfortable places, our reluctant hero finds himself pressured to drop the case from not just the criminals, but his boss and future father-in-law. He’ll have to decide if the future he was chasing is enough to quiet his newly reawakened conscience.

Despite it’s familiar story, Penitentia manages to be a very watchable film due to Lawing’s strong script. He obviously cares about corruption and economic disparity in the judicial system, even if he didn’t follow his father into the legal profession. And in making this film to honour him, he’s created a narrative that showcases the kind of work he did.

Penitentia Egg and Wolf

Penitentia also benefits from some strong performances from an experienced, if not overly familiar, cast. Stanton stands out as the conflicted protagonist who has to choose between wealth and status, or the idealism of his past and is complimented by Schwartz as his former mentor who keeps prodding and pushing him into doing the right thing. Flanagan, Stephenson and Chandra Michaels (The Eden Theory, The Christmas Pitch) are solid as the fiancé and prospective in laws who can’t understand his growing determination to win a case he’s not being paid for and Bylsma makes a convincingly menacing thug.

Overall, Penitentia is a good example of a familiar story retold with skill and backed with talent. On the technical side, it’s helped by the fact Lawing runs a production company and had access to talent and equipment other indie dramas might not. It also means he has the experience to deliver some solid cinematography, be his own editor, etc. The result is a film that is better than several larger budget films with the same theme.

Gravitas Ventures will release Penitentia to Digital and VOD Platforms on June 18th.

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