Monday, September 27, 2004

Jesus, You Know (Jesus, Du Weisst)

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 26 September 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Sunday Eye-Opener; projected video)

Ulrich Seidl's Jesus, Du Weisst isn't a very good movie. Its static cinematography and odd framing are off-putting, and for a documentary it certainly feels staged, if not outright rehearsed. It doesn't have a strong voice, and even at 87 minutes seems like a long sit. Even bad documentaries, however, are useful in terms of provoking discussion.

Jesus, Du Weisst sets up cameras in the churches of six devout Austrian Catholics and films them as they pray aloud. The aesthetics of this are peculiar; you mostly wind up seeing these people along in a large cathedral, looking directly into the camera, as if they were praying to the audience. Perhaps even more creepy are the cutaways to the worshippers' actual lives, which are silent and on occasion quite peculiar.

I wondered if perhaps Seidl's point was that people who spend a lot of time talking to God don't talk to each other; it's especially telling with a young couple who pray seperately, telling Jesus about the problems in their relationship, but are mute in their scenes together. As they play ping-pong in the church's rec room, there's a huge crucifix between them.

Other subjects are somewhat disturbing, such as a teenager who is considered strange by his family for attending Mass every evening and who seems to have channeled so much of his energy into his faith that he's completely unable to handle the new emotions puberty is injecting into his mind. Others are just sad, such as the middle-aged church caretaker who worries for her husband, a Pakistani Muslim who recently suffered a stroke.

There is potentially interesting subject matter here - though an introduction suggests that the film was conceived to illustrate how prayer strengthens people, the picture that emerges is one of isolation and sometimes greater despair. I can't imagine that the churches would have given Seidl as much access as they did if that was his original plan, and he may not have been prepared to deal with that.

The counter-argument to that, though, is that this is a deadly dull film to watch. The camera never moves, and the composition is both very static and odd. Ever church and worshipper is shot the same way with the differences being how far off-center they are, with what seems like a lot of space at the top of the frame emphasizing the emptiness of the church behind them. On top of that, the movie looks artificial; the subjects seem to be wearing the same clothes each time they come in to pray, and there's something off about staging. One person in the discussion group noted that though the couple stood at a ping-pong table and hit the ball back and forth, they didn't seem to be playing, in terms of trying to get the ball past the other player. Similarly, some of the shots of people walking into the church looked subtly wrong, as if the person was more worried about getting every step right than they would be without a camera there.

I enjoyed the discussion with the other Brattle/Clotrudis members afterward, far more than the movie itself; I freely admit that a fair amount of what's written above would have been absent without it. But if you're not going to talk it over with somebody afterward, I can't see any reason to watch this.

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