Review coming soon.
Month: June 2007
Review coming soon
The God Who Wasn’t There
Ex-fundamentalist Christian Brian Flemming looks for Jesus and finds nobody home. Through narration, film clips, and interviews, Flemming calls into question the existence of Jesus of Nazareth, points to the dangers in the Christian faith, and looks at how Christian teachings harm young children, including an early version of himself.
I rarely review documentaries. My interest is in fiction and while I enjoy the occasional doc, they aren’t the movies that fill my waking hours. They also require a separate rating system because they are a different form of art, and it is inappropriate (and just odd) to compare March of the Penguins to Casablanca. But I could hardly pass up a film titled The God Who Wasn’t There. And in this case, the work more than lives up to the title. Flemming’s film is entertaining and informative, and is most likely the finest I will ever find on the subject. It’s greatest failing is that it is too brief. Doubling its length of just over an hour would still make it too short. Flemming has a lot to say, and I’d love to hear more.
Presented in a light, funny, and ironic style, The God Who Wasn’t There touches on three subjects. The first is the historical and Biblical evidence for there never being a man named Jesus upon whom Christianity is based. The material is compelling and makes the film a must-see/must-buy. Jesus is examined both by the information that can be found (his birth, rise, death, and resurrection closely follow general hero myths—so closely that even Churches realized an explanation was needed and they suggested: The Devil knew Jesus was coming and so, thousands of years earlier, planted all the legends) and by that which is missing (no Gospels were written for at least forty years after the supposed crucifixion, and Paul, the founder of the Christian church, appears unaware of the personal, human Jesus). For anyone unfamiliar with the story of Jesus—which I had assumed would be no one, but after hearing the Christians Flemming interviewed, who show little knowledge or curiosity about the beginnings of their religion, could be a substantial number of people—the highlights are illustrated in a humorous montage with clips from the silent La Vie et la Passion de Jésus Christ (1905) and the miniseries The Living Bible (1952).
To aid his case, Flemming interviews a collection of scholars and authors (and is kind enough to put websites information and mention specific books in the credits). Alan Dundes (who died shortly after filming) and Robert M. Priceput Christianity in the larger folk history context while Barbara & David P. Mikkelson of Snopes.com connect religion to urban myths. But I should also mention Scott Butcher who sits on the other side of the fence and displays a sense of humor so often missing in fundamentalists. He runs a website that allows people to leave letters for their loved ones that will be delivered after the rapture.
With the existence, or lack there of, of Jesus covered just enough to get the viewer thinking, Flemming switches gears to look at how Christianity effects our society, and offers up the insights of historians and authors Sam Harris and Richard Carrier. The most interesting contention is that moderate Christianity makes no sense. If you are going to adopt this religion, there is no nice, large tent you can climb under. The Bible is quite clear on its calls to violence and cruelty. Flemming solidifies his thoughts nicely with, “The Inquisition was not a perversion of Christian doctrine; it was an expression of Christian doctrine.” If you accept Jesus, God, and the Bible, then you are required to be a nasty son of a bitch. And if you are willing to dump some of those things in order to be a decent human being, then why are you accepting any? He goes on to gleefully discusses the phenomena of The Passion of the Christ, documenting the incredible violence of the film minute by minute, and noting that this gore-fest was the movie that Christians really wanted.
Finally, things becomes more personal as Flemming returns to his Christian grammar school where he had been traumatized years earlier. I wholeheartedly agree that those who cause pain (such as the school’s principal whose control over the lives of children is horrifying) should be confronted with their deeds, but I don’t find it enjoyable to watch. While this section may be cathartic to some viewers, and certainly was to Flemming, I would have preferred a less emotional wrap up.
The God Who Wasn’t There is a brilliant and engaging look at a mythical figure who dominates our civilization. It is not, nor does it attempt to be, an in-depth study. It isn’t a graduate level philosophy or anthropology class, but an introduction, and a look at one man’s journey away from The Holy Spirit and into the light.
Will it change anyone’s mind? That’s hard to say. I was already familiar with much of the material (having taken those previously mentioned graduate courses), but atheists and agnostics who haven’t may find quite a bit to chew on. Zealots will ignore it. However, it has some strong messages for those who think of themselves as moderate Christians and there is where it is likely to do the most good.
Recently orphaned fifteen-year-old Justine is brought to a convent of bizarre, filthy, death-shrouded nuns in the 1860s. Her roommate is Alucarda, a happy but disturbed girl who instantly falls in love with Justine, and takes her to the woods to show her “secrets.” While gallivanting about, they open a coffin (which probably belonged to Alucarda’s mother) and a force enters Alucarda. Soon, the two girls are swearing allegiance to Satan (in the nude, naturally), the nuns are whipping themselves in Christ’s love, and the priest is shouting for an exorcism that involves crucifixion. It’s just a regular day in the church.
Yes, it is possession time again, which normally means affirming you belief and joy in God and The Church (i.e. The Exorcist), but not this time. Maverick Mexican director Juan López Moctezuma has created a thoroughly repellent religious order. The nuns wrap themselves like mummies with what looks to be dried menstrual blood staining the front of their rags, flagellate themselves, leaving deep, long, bloody wounds on their backs, and writhe on the floor and scream at the notion of the Devil. The priest yells of doom while standing in front of an alter of multiple crucified forms, is frightened of sexuality, and thinks that stabbing young nude girls while they are bound to a cross is the best way to deal with bad behavior. There isn’t much to recommend the Church, nor God for that matter. As Alucarda says, “you worship death, I worship life.”
Lumped into the ’70s and ’80s “Nunsploitation” genre, Alucarda has a lot to say about religion, and it says it with blood, nudity, and more screaming than I’ve heard in any other film. Everyone screams. Alucarda and Justine, gypsies, nuns, monks, priests—they all scream. If screaming annoys you, this is going to be a very long movie. The nudity is courtesy of Alucarda and Justine (and the gypsies) as the two girls carry out a Satanic bonding ceremony in the buff and dance naked with the gypsies, before Justine is strapped to a wooden X and stripped so that a monk might check her flesh for The Devil’s mark (yeah, right). The blood on the other hand, is courtesy of just about everyone. I don’t think a single character gets away without shedding or being covered in a bit of the red stuff (well, maybe the carriage driver gets away clean).
The Satanism that the two girls embrace (or that possesses them) is not the normal horror film sort, but is closer to pagan vitality worship. While it is less repressed and more fulfilling than Christianity, it has its disadvantages. Alucarda’s conversion pushes her toward insanity (and considering where she started, it doesn’t have to be much of a shove) and Justine becomes very sick. The film is never clear on what is harming Justine: the pagan possession, her own guilt, or the battle between Christian and “demonic” forces within her. Alucarda blames Christianity and vows to take vengeance on The Church (which, considering all its other actions, is understandable), but she is never completely in control. In the end, both religions symbolically vanish for the good of all.
But even then, the message of the film is often muddled. Sometimes it is characters that muddy the waters. Sister Angélica is actually on the side of good and, by receiving stigmata, can influence nature to strike at the gypsies. The one man of reason and science, Dr. Oszek, converts to Christianity and becomes as bad as any of the nuns with extraordinary ease. That the same actor plays him and the lead gypsy implies a duality, but what that might mean is never investigated. Then there is the suggestion that Alucarda (whose name is Dracula in reverse with an “a” added) is Lucy Westenra’s daughter, but this homage to Dracula goes nowhere. Is Alucarda supposed to be an evil vampire? It seems unlikely.
Message aside, this is a beautiful and strange film. The colors are bright, crisp, and hyper-realistic. The set design is the movie’s most peculiar element and one of its best. The nunnery appears to have been carved out of solid rock, and the figures behind the altar look like they grew there. While shot in Mexico, the actors spoke English. But much of the dialog was still added in post production, with the same effect as if the movie had been dubbed, only the lips match the words. The pace keeps things exciting, but is also too fast in developing the pivotal relationship between Alucarda and Justine. A few extra minutes showing them grow together over time would have helped immensely.
While sometimes lacking in intellectual coherence, its emotional center is clear: religion is a sad, dirty affair, and the nude human form is lovely. It takes a more moderate position on excessive blood and doctors with leeches.
It is also known as Innocents from Hell, Mark of the Devil 3, and Sisters of Satan.