Alissa’s note: Ken Morefield, a longtime contributor to Christianity Today Movies and a cinephile and critic for whom I have great respect, writes a post we call “The Long Tail.” Each month, he looks at a few films that are being primarily distributed to American audiences through DVDs or Internet streaming and tries to surface some movies that might otherwise fly under the radar.
If you’re worn out on on comic-book films and bubble gum blockbusters, you may be ready to scan the lists of DVD and streaming releases for less flashy fare. September offers some great options, unified by a common theme: individuals who are both shaped by their communities and trying to influence them.
Francesco: St. Francis of Assisi
Film Movement kicks off the month of September with a Blu-ray reissue of Liliana Cavani’s powerful and affecting Francesco—a biography of St. Francis of Assisi. On paper Cavani, best known for the controversial sadomasochism-themed The Night Porter, would seem an odd choice for this project.
And Mickey Rourke, coming off of Nine ½ Weeks, Angel Heart, and Barfly, would not have been among the first fifty actors I would have imagined playing the iconic saint. The casting turns out to be inspired, though. He is riveting.
In fact, the whole film is remarkably engaging. It may take fifteen minutes or so for American viewers to adjust to the artificiality of the dubbing and the less-emotive acting style common in many European films. But stick it out. This biopic carefully imagines the psychological and spiritual toll (paid by both Francis and those who love him) of the saint’s attempts at simple obedience to God’s words. An early scene where Francis’s father pleads before the court while his son renounces all claims to the family’s wealth is devastatingly painful in its archetypal power. So too is Francis’s loneliness in the face of a suspicious church structure and followers who would prefer rules rather than principles.
Those sensitive to nudity should be warned that there are a couple of non-erotic scenes of the undraped human form, including one where Francis crawls naked through the snow. There is also a brief glimpse at a human body being flayed that is not for the squeamish. My only real complaint was the Vangelis soundtrack, which felt oddly triumphal amidst so many sober scenes.
A Sinner in Mecca: Critical But Not Mocking
Parvez Sharma’s A Sinner in Mecca tells the story of a very different struggle between a believer and his religion’s power structure. Sharma, an openly gay Muslim, attempts to film his Hajj pilgrimage, traveling to a land where the penalty for being found gay is death. The risks he is taking are underscored by footage he receives and shares early in the film of a suspected gay man being beheaded in Medina. Another gay man who witnesses the execution and chats with Sharma online says, “I am so f---ing afraid all the time.” Of life in Saudi Arabia as a gay man, he says simply, “It’s HELL.”
Sharma’s documenting of his own (gay) marriage and lamentations about his family’s rejection will probably sound familiar to any Christians who have even a cursory familiarity with gay film or literature. (His mother’s rejection was particularly painful.)
What sets this documentary apart, though, is the footage Sharma takes on the Hajj, often in areas where non-Muslims and filming are forbidden. His alienated status makes him sensitive to the ironies or paradoxes of his journey: a Starbucks seven hundred meters from one of the holiest sites in his religion, the trash-lined streets of a tent city, a report of a woman being fondled lecherously amidst the crowds of pilgrims.