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Documentary Drama DVD/BluRay Movies Reviews

Retro Review: Goodfellas

Distributor: Warner Brothers
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writer: Nicholas Pileggi, Martin Scorsese
Composer: N/A
Starring: Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco, Paul Sorvino, Samuel Jackson

Scorsese reached something of a career peak in the 1980s. During this period he wrote and directed some of his best and most interesting works. He started the decade with Raging Bull and filled it in with movies like The King of Comedy, After Hours, The Color of Money, and The Last Temptation of Christ. While the rest of Hollywood began its descent into Blockbuster-centric myopia, he stayed true to his guns and kept pushing himself. Then at the turn of the decade once again he returned with arguably the most iconic film in his filmography. 

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: Characters are shot with large blood spurts, a character is stabbed repeatedly, characters are beaten, corpses are depicted.

Language/Crude Humor: Extreme language throughout including religious curses and racial slurs.

Sexual Content: Nothing visually depicted, discussions of rape and infidelity.

Other Negative Content: Murder, violence, spousal abuse, drug abuse, criminal activity.

Positive Content: Themes of loyalty and honor.

Review

We’re finally at the big one. In the past few weeks I’ve written reviews of several of Martin Scorsese’s most popular films: Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The King of Comedy. Naturally I’m leaping over wasting quantities of Scorsese’s filmography just focusing on these but for anyone interested in him these are the films you need to watch first. These are all, of course, excellent buts no Scorcese film has had the cultural impact that his 1990 mobster masterpiece has had. Goodfellas isn’t just one of Scorsese’s greatest masterpieces, it’s one of his most defining works from a cultural standpoint. It’s a moving, enthralling, and emotionally complex epic set against decades following the lives of a group of real life mobsters who lived by this lifestyle and eventually died by it. 

The movie was notably the reunion of Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro for the first time in nearly a decade after their collaboration on The King of Comedy. That said, unlike their previous efforts he’s not the star of the show. De Niro is merely a supporting character playing the role of the older mob boss inculcating the new guy into the group. That new guy is brought to us by Ray Liotta, who plays the archetypal Scorsese role of the young passionate man who becomes corrupted by the forces of the story. 

The film is based on the 1985 book Wiseguys and follows the real life story of Henry Hill, a mobster whose gallivant with organized crime ran from the 1960s to the 1980s and lead him down the path of wealth, drug addiction, murder, and eventually betrayal. While I haven’t read the book, I take it on good authority that Goodfellas is both an extremely loyal adaptation and a true to life representation of the real events with a few elements fictionalized. 

The opening lines summarize Henry Hill as a character, “Ever since I was young I always wanted to be a gangster.” The film starts by contrasting acts of intense violence with the decadence and prosperity that comes to those who join organized crime. It begins as it means to go on, ironically but with a serious point to make. Goodfellas is ultimately the story of Hill achieving his goal and suffering because of it. Granted, his suffering isn’t physical in nature. At its worst it’s merely a constant anxiety about consequences of his actions looming in the distance should he get caught. Still in the moment the movie often disregards the fear though ever-present it may be. The mob is, after all, a fun group to be in at its best. 

The mob is a complicated mechanism. It’s deeply protective of its own but it has complex codes of ethics that protect its members from law enforcement and other gangs. When a mobster hurts another gang’s members without permission he opens himself up for being killed. When a mobster goes against the rules of his own mob he opens himself up for being killed. When mobs can’t shut their yap and keep important information from spilling, they open themselves up for being killed. Thus is the story of Goodfellas being about the complicated nexus of living a life of crime, maintaining your honor, and still finding a way to make dirty money on the side. The movie frontloads its story with immense amounts of exposition in the narration to explain this complex web of codes which proves to be necessary given its breadth. 

The emotional journey that carries us through in watching this play out is one of depth and complexity. The movie runs the gambit from scenes of incredibly abuse and horror to deep sadness to unrepentant joy and glee. Sometimes it’s able to jump between all of these tones and emotions effortlessly mere moments apart. The whiplash is purposeful of course. These are characters who can fly off the handle on a moment’s notice if you say the wrong thing at the wrong time. At any given point you don’t know if cracking wise will get a laugh out of the room or get you shot. 

Goodfellas is a long movie and it’s got a huge story to tell. The plot covers a lot from Hill’s introduction to the gang as a child, his initiation, his decision to start dealing drugs behind the gang’s back, and the eventual plan to pull off the infamous Lufthansa heist of 1978, the largest robbery in American history.

While it isn’t depicted in the film visually, the immense success that heist incurs on the gang ends up being its undoing as members of the gang start making mistakes, resulting in them getting wacked one by one to cover their tracks. It’s a crystalizing moment that places immense stress on the characters in the final stretch of the film and which sets in motion the events of the ending. 

Like all Scorsese movies, the character does ultimately get punished in the end to some degree but that punishment is always undercut with dramatic irony. His punishment isn’t physical but merely against his dignity. The one thing he wanted out of life in the mob is robbed from him and he’s left alive but in a state he considers beneath his station in life.

Like all Scorsese movies it carries with it the implicit notion of existential angst. Being a mobster is fulfilling and exciting until it stops being that way. At that point your life is placed in danger, your family is placed in danger, and the best way out is merely to save your own skin. As we find out in the epilogue describing the real life character’s life, he doesn’t go on to live a comfortable life but one of continued hassle, legal problems, and dissatisfaction. 

As is Scorsese’s tendency in most of his films, his view on life is fundamentally a (lapsed) Catholic one. These characters have committed acts of violence and evil on a daily basis but those acts come out of a deep inner desire to fulfill the God-shaped hole in our hearts. The power, wealth, and decadence the mobster lifestyle lends them is a drug. When the vices are removed, Hill is left only with an empty shell of a life. Maybe that’s not enough punishment for a man who has committed the sins we’ve seen him commit, but it’s certainly ironic and degrading in its own way. 

Goodfellas is known for its sweeping visual style. It’s most famous part is the several minute tracking shot which takes Henry Hill and his date through the backrooms of a restaurant which has been long since parodied and embraced by culture as one of the all time great shots in all of cinema. Beyond that though the movie’s visuals are similarly sweeping. It’s an exciting movie about characters living by the moment. Having a camera and swoops and glides through the scenes like a panorama is appropriate. It always holds long enough for us to see what we need and sometimes more than we want to.

The movie has to be able to swap between the tones of a party and an anxiety attack on a whim. Thus the style accentuates that. It’s much in contrast to its more visually conservative cousin The Godfather which is much more restrained and locked down. Granted that movie’s visual style is similarly masterful in different ways. Like I said back in Flawed Faith, Scorsese is a director who understands the appeal of sin. The dramatic contrast of the energetic fun and the chaotic consequences is the entire point of the film. Characters that live by chaos die by chaos. 

You won’t find many other movies in Scorsese’s filmography that have been as widely embraced as Goodfellas shy of the occasional hit like The Wolf of Wall Street which became THE big thing of the moment when it came out. That isn’t to say his films aren’t widely embraced. They are. It’s just that none of his films are as iconic as Goodfellas. It’s not even necessarily in my top five favorite films of his (given how large that list is). Still it’s hard to deny what it represents. It’s the kind of auteur epic that every filmmaker wishes they could conjure up or participate in. It’s the demarcation of the midpoint of his career and it would forever follow him as his defining work. 

 

Categories
Documentary Movies Reviews

Review: The Amazing Johnathan Documentary

Distributor: Hulu

Director: Benjamin Berman

Writers: Benjamin Berman, Clark Baker (Creative Consultant), Joshua Cohen (Creative Consultant)

Composer: Zack Wright

Starring: The Amazing Johnathan, Benjamin Berman, Anastasia Synn

Genre: Documentary

The Amazing Johnathan made a splash in the magic world with his shock-jock tactics and third act twists, masterfully merging his illusions with comedy. Gracing various variety shows across the world during the eighties and nineties, it comes as no surprise that there was a little boy that grew up in admiration of his magical buffoonery: Benjamin Berman.

A cardiomyopathy diagnosis in 2014 prematurely ended the Amazing Johnathan’s career, with the entertainer effectively retiring due to his health condition. Though in 2017, after… well, still being alive despite only initially given a year to live, the Amazing Johnathan decided to make a come back tour–a feat which inspired Benjamin Berman to make his first documentary. After all, following his idol around was a dream come true for him. What could possibly go wrong?

Everything, it seems.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: The Amazing Jonathan is a comedic illusionist. There is some footage of his act, which involves tricking the audience into believing he is causing bodily harm, or removing body parts.

Language/Crude Humor: The f-bomb is dropped a few times, along with the s-word.

Drug/Alcohol References: Strong drug usage. Jonathan’s use of speed (meth) is talked about regularly. We see him smoke it on screen, along with other people, although the pipe itself is censored by a black box. As an act, Jonathan pretends he is snorting cocaine. Alcohol is consumed–sometimes it is pretend. Some pills are taken for medical reasons.

Sexual Content:  None.

Spiritual Content: None.

Other Negative Content: The film questions the nature of biographical documentaries and whether they are effectively profiting from someone’s demise. We witness someone coerced into taking drugs, a topic which the film takes lightly.

Positive Content: Thematically this film drifts off into various directions, to the point that every individual may take home a different lesson. Though what is most apparent is its endearing tenacity to not give up in the face of hardship.

Review

I know what you’re thinking. This is a straightforward documentary, right? As the title suggests, The Amazing Johnathan Documentary sounds rather self-explanatory. Is this film a documentary about the Amazing Johnathan? Yes. Does it chronicle parts of his life? Yes. Does it ask the hard questions? Yes. Is it insightful? Oh yes! Does it do what every documentary should do? Yes… but no. No, no, no, no, NO!

Everything that could possibly go wrong with a documentary… goes wrong.

And it’s deliriously entertaining to watch it all unfold!

This is one of those films where it’s better the less you know. It would be a shame to detail exactly what occurs in this documentary because it’s such a delight to partake in Berman’s journey.

There are two main ways filmmakers approach the subject they’re documenting: either they already know the narrative they wish to tell and then film to conform to their script (this style is popular with Michael Moore), or they take an investigative approach using only a bare outline, and follow where the story leads (as seen with Louis Theroux). Benjamin Berman is very (very) much the latter type, to the extent that the narrative effectively runs away from him, leaving him to hilariously deal with whatever scraps he has left.

If The Amazing Johnathan Documentary were a stage play, then its theatrical twin would be The Play That Goes Wrong. It’s a hilarious yet catastrophic production where the actors forget their lines, the props fail, and the set collapses. Yet obviously all the mistakes are intended, and eventually all the resulting chaos becomes a bothersome hindrance to actually telling a good story. Not so with The Amazing Johnathan Documentary.

It’s a bizarre experience to behold because it brutally exposes the real lie behind the documentary genre–the one type of film that we typically trust to expose the truth: that real life doesn’t come in a neat little box that makes for a nice piece narrative of storytelling. Despite their palpable subject matter, documentaries still follow the same structure as their fictional film counterparts. As Berman scrambles desperately to follow suit, in search of the perfect ending to his utter nightmare of a film project, he ironically creates the most truthful documentary of all.

Unlike The Play That Goes Wrong, Berman’s struggles are authentic and incredibly endearing, eventually adding to the quality of the story that is told (albeit haphazardly). We’ve all had that moment in life where things get so tough that we’re faced with the option to either stay and fight, or flee. Thankfully Berman decides to keep filming. Yes, the movie is still about the Amazing Johnathan, but not in the way that we’d normally expect, and the film is richer for bucking the traditional tale. If you want a mere retelling of his life, there’s always Wikipedia.

This is the perfect documentary for people who don’t typically like documentaries, mainly because it’s unlike any documentary you’re likely to have seen (even though it’s oddly kinda about documentaries). It’s a documentary inside a documentary, inside a documentary… and maybe, possibly inside yet another documentary… There’s just a lot of documenting happening here! Berman doesn’t just break the fourth wall. He busts through that looking glass like a fireman, shattering every single shard in his attempt to salvage whatever footage he can in his self-imploding circumstances, in such a meta-tastic way that would impress even the writers of Supernatural.

As Annie Hall challenged and revolutionized romantic comedies, so too does The Amazing Johnathan Documentary for the documentary genre. Yet it’s the proverbial lightning in a bottle–to try and repeat its accidental style would not only be contrived, but it would lose its endearing charm. It’s like that school project where you were allowed to speak for three minutes on whatever subject you liked; it was refreshing the first time you heard someone deliver a speech about not knowing what to talk about, but after listening to the third person with the same “brilliant” idea, the novelty quickly became stale.

Yet as it stands, The Amazing Johnathan Documentary is the most unique documentary I’ve witnessed. I’ve watched over 100 films in 2019 now, and this one shot straight up to the top of my list. I hope it wins an Oscar (and if you’re a Hulu subscriber and watch the film, you’ll discover why that result would be amusingly fitting).

HOWEVER!

I have to give a HUGE warning.

I can’t recommend this film to everyone.

This movie does contain a significant amount of drug usage. Given the amount of times I’ve written the word “documentary” in this review, I hope you understand the problem here. It’s real. It’s not Requiem for a Dream where actors portray issues surrounding drug usage within a narrative context that highlights their life-destroying capabilities.  

While several people within the documentary express their dismay or outright condemnation of the act, the film over all does take a more light-hearted tone. It would be apt to say that it’s treated as a bit of a joke for a good five minutes of its runtime. The subject is approached in an honest and interesting way, though the story’s deviation does feel unnecessary and rather irresponsible. While many people die from drug addiction, likewise many people have a try and don’t experience anything grossly negative. This documentary displays the latter; without focusing on the heavy consequences that can result from such behavior, it therefore unintentionally lightens the seriousness of the subject as a whole.

You know what causes you to stumble. If watching people recreationally take drugs is enough to tempt you into performing behaviors that you wish to avoid, then please don’t watch this movie. It is a shame, as this is a wonderfully creative film, though sadly for some it should rightfully be ignored.

Categories
Articles Christian Living Documentary Movies

Flawed Faith: Meekness, Faith, and Mr. Rogers

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. —Romans 8:28  

Thus far Flawed Faith has been a series I’ve wanted to use to discuss films that aren’t traditionally thought of as being particularly kind to the faith. Dogma, Alien: Covenant, and Spotlight all have disparaging things to say about organized religion but the reason I delved deep into them is that even the most unsuspecting religious undertones can point to the glory of God. Even in flawed, materialistic anti-theistic art, I theorize we still see the yearning and existential desire to understand the universe.

Dogma teaches us that people are messy but often they yearn to understand faith through their skepticism and moral outrage to seek the divine. Alien: Covenant teaches us that people have significant anxieties about following God and that it’s okay to question things and seek the truth. Spotlight finally taught us that truth can be unbearable and horrifying but that it’s true and that it’s our responsibility to seek it as good Christians. As we continue with this series every month I want to use this to explore films outside of just this angel. There are plenty of other examples of modern filmmaking that explore faith in a more positive light and I want to use this series to spotlight these as they come along.

As this year has continued to slowly chug along I’ve found myself reflecting on all of the art I’ve digested in 2018 and have been left to consider what I would I believe is the best film thus far. There have been several strong contenders from the vital and exciting Black Panther to the poignant and hilarious Eighth Grade, the terrifying and unsettling Annhiliation to the nightmare fever-dream of You Were Never Really Here.

Above all of them one film has truly stood out and it was one I wasn’t expecting. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is the kind of unassuming piece of documentary filmmaking you wouldn’t expect to hit you the way it does. Maybe that’s appropriate. Fred Rogers certainly wasn’t the kind of man to make you think he was that complex. In a way, he really wasn’t. That’s the point of course. He was exactly as he was sold on the box. This was the quiet tragedy of Fred Rogers, a rare sort of man who actually lived up to the difficult bar of being a decent person through and through.

Here lies the terrible question at the heart of Won’t You Be My Neighbor?. Can a good person actually make the world a better place? This is the question the movie plants on our minds from the first minutes of the film as it parades us through the life of the one time PBS star. Over the course of 912 episodes of publicly funded television, Fred Rogers used his platform to create a different and unique form of children’s programming. He deliberately defied what the safe strategies of marketing to children were.

His show was quiet, slow, reflective but necessarily earnest. He taught young children important values, difficult life concepts like death, divorce, and reinforced the importance of everyone being a special, important and unique person. Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister and faith was a vital aspect of his work. He never used his pulpit to preach as his stage was a secular one but the love and understanding that ached through his gentle stare and softspoken voice conveyed a Christian love more tangible than words ever could. He was what most Christians could hope to be. He was a good representative of the kingdom of heaven on Earth.

The film presents Mr. Rogers as an almost Christ-like figure to a degree that could be considered borderline apocryphal. At one point one of his sons makes an offhand comment that being raised by Fred Rogers was akin to being born a son of Christ himself. Maybe the film is overcompensating but it’s not hard to tell why. Mr. Rogers clearly affected the lives of millions of people who watched his show every day for their entire childhoods. Beyond that, the current zeitgeist clearly infuses the film with a kind of astonishment.

In an age of toxic twitter bile, political bifurcation, civil unrest, and the daily revelations that cherished childhood heroes are secret monsters the film rubs off with the sense that Mr. Rogers was something of a bizarre creature. The ever-present question of whether or not Mr. Rogers actually made a difference in the world looms. There’s clearly a vast chasm between the millions of people who he affected and the chaotic state of the world. In the rare moments when the facade briefly fades away and you see the real Mr. Rogers underneath the sweater, we come to see the man in a heartbreakingly humble light. He was a person like anyone else with fear and anxiety. It’s heartbreaking just to watch common decency and love of this magnitude come on stress and admit that it feels inadequate.

The Bible tells us that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23 NIV).” There is no doubt that Fred Rogers was a flawed man, just like the filmmakers who made this movie is flawed and we are flawed as well. Mr. Rogers was not Christ after all. Yet the effect of his life is undeniable. He wasn’t able to fix the world because no man can fix the world. We are fallen by our natures and any attempt to fix mankind will fail. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is beautiful because it teaches us that despite the fact that you can’t fix a fallen world you can bring goodness into the world.

Through your meekness, kindness, and humility you can bring moments of peace and joy into the lives of broken people. The Book of Psalms in the Bible tells us “The Meek shall inherit the earth; and shall delight themselves in the abundance of peace (Psalm 37:11).” We must go out into the world as representatives of meekness and faith. We will fail because the world cannot be saved in its entirety but we have an opportunity to repair a small part of it even if it’s only for a time.

Categories
Documentary Horror Movies Reviews

Review: The Devil and Father Amorth

Distributor: The Orchard

Director: William Friedkin

Writers: William Friedkin & Mark Kermode

Starring: Gabriele Amorth & William Friedkin

Genre: Documentary

Rating: Not Rated

In 1973, director William Friedkin shocked the world with his terrifying horror film The Exorcist. The movie offered a powerful vision of superstition and religion coming into contact with the modern world and remains one of the most influential horror films of all time. While the film’s legacy is contentious as some people argue that it hasn’t held up in the forty-seven years since its premiere, its legacy is unquestionable for the sheer impact it had. Now this year the same director William Friedkin returns to reexamine the subject of his most famous film with The Devil and Father Amorth, a documentary depicting a supposed real-life exorcism with the late Father Gabriele Amorth.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: A woman is held down in a chair as a demon is exorcized from her.

Language/Crude Humor: Minor language.

Drug/Alcohol References: None.

Sexual Content: None.

Spiritual Content: Long discussions on the nature of reality, the existence of demons, and the supernatural.

Other Negative Content: None.

Positive Content: Interesting philosophical discussion about the nature of evil and reality and the scientific legitimacy of exorcism.

Review

Directors returning to the territory that made them famous is well-trodden territory in the history of filmmaking. Most directors get famous for a single movie and then wade off into new territories for the duration of their career only to revisit the subjects that made them famous late in life. You can see this career trajectory with filmmakers like Ridley Scott (Prometheus), Steven Spielberg (Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), James Cameron (Avatar), and now Quentin Tarantino who’s upcoming Once Upon a Time in Hollywood appears to be a quasi-revisitation of the style and structure of his first masterpiece Pulp Fiction. William Friedkin’s return to horror seems like a kind of inevitable conclusion to his vital career. While he’s directed dozens of films, most recently with his well-received 2012 film Killer Joe, his career has been utterly defined by the release of his critically acclaimed horror film The Exorcist. With this newest documentary, Friedkin is once again dipping into the well of his most popular film to reexamine its ideas.

I’ve been very interested in seeing this since I first heard about it in passing. I’d been previously aware of the world-renowned Father Gabrielle Amorth prior to his passing in 2016 and hearing that Friedkin would be reexamining the themes of The Exorcist via a supposed real-life exorcism with the legendary exorcist, I knew this was something I had to see. The Devil and Father Amorth is a personal passion project from the now aged director looking back on one of his greatest achievements and revisiting it through less skeptical eyes. It seems that in the duration of time between both films Friedkin lived a full life and has seemingly converted to Christianity late in his life.

For him getting the chance to experience the subject matter of his most vital contribution to culture clearly means the world to him. The best thing that I can say about the movie is that it’s truly a William Friedkin film. It’s something he desperately wanted to express and he poured his heart and soul in it, largely being one of the film’s seemingly only technicians during a lot of the interviewing scenes where we see Friedkin in the reverse camera personally holding a camera and interviewing his subjects. It’s basically a one-man stage show.

The Devil and Father Amorth for all of its passion, introspection, and fascination is a solid miniature documentary that is sadly drowning in hyperbole and bizarre directing decisions. The film’s centerpiece, being the actual purported exorcism we’re meant to witness, is effectively ruined by the way it’s presented with obviously fake sound effects and vocal enhancement that is meant to evoke the aesthetics that his previous film used. Maybe he just wanted to emphasize how it felt to be in the presence of something like that but as the people I was watching the film said, it’s hard to take this moment seriously if you have to add fake elements for effect. Seeing a real-life exorcism should be shocking and primordially emotional enough to have us at the edge of our seats. The film further damages itself by dragging the scene out for an excruciatingly long time. By all means, this scene should have the same emotional resonance as watching Regan’s outbursts in The Exorcist did but the poor editing and sound effects just drain the scene of everything.

The remainder of the film’s runtime follows much of the same path as his previous film. Friedkin sorts through a series of interviews with neuroscientists, doctors, and theologians trying to come to terms about the nature of the video he shot during the exorcism. The film offers a lot of back and forth from both sides with digressions on whether or not people without religious backgrounds are capable of being possessed and in what circumstances an exorcism can be understood to be legitimate. This marks the most interesting stretch of the film as we just get to listen to intelligent people bounce off ideas back and forth and debate big questions.

The steam the film does manage to build up, however, is lost by the end when late in the film the twist appears. The twist calls a great deal of the film’s authenticity into question when Friedkin asks us to bear with the film and trust that he’s not embellishing the truth considering the lengths the film seeks to emphasize moments for the duration of the film it’s hard to stem critics who would outright deny that any of this is legitimate. Friedkin should have treated this moment with vulnerability, putting himself and his reputation on the stop and setting him center stage begging to the audience to believe what it is he is claiming happens. Instead, it makes the same mistake as before. It plays up the scene for effect.

Billy Graham was once consulted about his opinion of The Exorcist and he fascinatingly opined that the depiction of evil was dangerous and something that Christians ought to avoid. Even C.S. Lewis has opined the object in regards to his book The Screwtape Letters in that putting himself in the headspace to write it was spiritually taxing. I’ve considered that a great deal and The Devil and Father Amorth discusses the idea too. In the film historian and scholar Jeffrey Burton Russell goes as far to state that his exposure to satanic ideas during his life of research was dangerous and something he was reluctant to ever revisit. Thus seeing this film acknowledge the reality of evil and address it is fascinating. It’s a rare moment of introspection in the horror genre. This is something I’ve agonized over too as I truly love films like The Exorcist and other dark horror films. They’re flawed movies by flawed people wrestling with spirituality.

The whole purpose of my Flawed Faith series of articles is to celebrate the minor victories of the lost as they grow spiritually towards home. That’s why I believe this film is so special even with all of its flaws. The Devil and Father Amorth is above all a personal journey. It’s not afraid to ask difficult questions and while it’s clear that the movie is hoping to evoke our sense of the supernatural it bizarrely is more interesting just watching people discuss their complicated ideas than it does by letting us see the supernatural in practice.

Categories
Christian Documentary Movies Reviews

Review: The Heart of Man + Participant’s Guide

Distributor: Unearthed Pictures

Director: Eric Esau

Writers: Eric Esau, Jason Pamer, Jonathan Sharpe (co-writer)

Composer: Tony Anderson

Starring: Robert Fleet, Serena Karnagy, Justin Torrence, William Paul Young, Jackie Hill Perry, Dr. Dan Allender

Genre: Documentary, Christian

Originally released in the United States in the latter half of last year, if The Heart of Man sounds familiar to you, then it may be because it has popped up in your recommended viewing list on Netflix or iTunes. Featuring the testimonies of many prominent Christian figures, including but not limited to William Paul Young, the author of The Shack, The Heart of Man is an odd film that breaks genre but seeks unity between God and the Prodigal Son. “I don’t think you’ll have seen a film like this,” Jason Pamer stated at the Sydney premiere, while actor, Justin Torrence, echoed sentiments about remaining open-minded.

A film that is also accompanied by a Participant’s Guide–a book that’s a “six-scene journey” structured similarly to a Bible Study–does The Heart of Man provide a confronting experience for Christian audiences, or is there a reason why this one may have been originally overlooked?

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: A man, in a trance, jumps off a cliff and battles the waves once in the ocean. A man is tricked into kissing a corpse. Maggots swarm a man’s body, causing him to panic. Physical assault–a man’s head is bashed against rocks during a fight, scarring his face and drawing blood. People talk about the real-life physical and sexual assault they have experienced in the past, some as children.

Language/Crude Humor: The s-word is said once.

Drug/Alcohol References: None.

Sexual Content: Several people (men and a woman) give their real-life testimonies about how they dealt with their sex-related sins. They speak openly and rather bluntly about pornography use, marital affairs, sexual assault, and casual sex. One talks about a homosexual relationship. A man is seen tempted by a woman. They both disrobe–the bare back of the woman is shown, while the man is seen shirtless. They kiss.

Spiritual Content: This is a Christian documentary containing the testimonies of people who have struggled and overcome their sin by understanding their identity in Christ. On screen, there is a silent, metaphorical retelling of the Prodigal Son.

Other Negative Content: None.

Positive Content: All the testimonies are gathered together and structured similarly to the story of the Prodigal Son; a tale about our separation from God due to our sinful desires, but His love is forever faithful, despite our apparent unworthiness.

 

Review

Jason Pamer certainly didn’t over exaggerate The Heart of Man’s defiance of genre convention. It’s a tough movie to define. The film operates mostly like a self-help documentary, though it’s brutally honest with its content and lacks any intent to manipulate the audience into a particular response. At its core is a collection of several unsanitized testimonies, all interwoven with each other, as the interviewees attempt to articulate their struggles with sexual-based addiction and the shame that prevented them from connecting with God.

To keep the film visually engaging, not resorting to a series of talking heads, these conversations are overlayed with a silent dramatic retelling of the Prodigal Son. Though it’s not a scene for scene Biblical account of the story. Rather, The Heart of Man takes advantage of the film medium and creates a pastiche of powerful images that express the essence of the original story.

For instance, an everyman figure plays the violin alongside an older man–The Father. It’s beautiful to watch them create music together, though the everyman’s interest wanes and his gaze is mysteriously drawn to the horizon, where an unknown, unexplored island beckons his attention. We know this story–it’s familiar. That island away from the presence of the Father will contain nothing but misery. The Heart of Man is a parable of a parable if you will; a metaphorical representation of a well-known Biblical tale.

It’s a deep, delightfully messy exploration into the human soul. While the testimonies are edited together to resemble a three-act structure, all resoundingly praising God’s love and forgiveness, this isn’t a solidified message, seeking to convert or necessarily preach to the audience. The Heart of Man mercifully isn’t one of those pushy Christian films. These are real people, sharing their experiences, still grappling with the metaphysical nature of God and their relationship with Him. On that level, it’s something that all Christians can relate to, and the film is driven by a desire to form a connection with the audience and to develop a sense of community; we’re all in this together.

The people interviewed are extremely frank about the sins that they have committed in the past, ranging from pornography usage to marital affairs. It’s confronting at first to hear such bold confessions, though it quickly becomes refreshing as these topics are rarely ever spoken about with such bluntness.

Jackie Hill Perry’s testimony was of particular note for me. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen a woman speak about her struggles with an addiction to pornography, not only in Christian circles but also in society in general. Considering that some statistics state that upwards of 70% of young adult females have watched porn within the last six months, it’s a wonder why this issue isn’t broached more often. So I applaud The Heart of Man for providing a different viewpoint on a sin that affects so many.

On a technical level, The Heart of Man is incredibly beautiful. The cinematography is gorgeous, gently sweeping across luscious forests and ferocious oceans, or jarringly framing some of the horrors found in God’s absence. There’s no dialogue between the actors, though the movie’s soundtrack fulfills all of the communicative means. A technical marvel, it’s hard to fault this movie.

While this is a wonderful film from an objective standpoint, subjectively it may not resonate universally with audiences as much as the filmmakers might have hoped. As mentioned previously, it does not present a direct adaptation of the Prodigal Son. In many ways, the silent narrative in this film is a conglomeration of Biblical truths, with the Prodigal Son being the most prevalent, but it nonetheless strays from the some of the nuances found in the parable.

For people who identify with that story–the rebellious nature of the son, along with the humiliation endured and the humbled yet apprehensive walk back home–may take issue with the film tweaking these aspects. Instead, in the movie, the son leaves seemingly out of compulsion, and it’s the Father that steps in amongst the son’s sins and pulls him out of it. It’s not an incorrect point; several times throughout Scripture, God rescues Israel out of their oppression, sometimes even when they haven’t asked for rescue. But it’s disingenuous to say The Heart of Man is only pulling from the Prodigal Son narrative.

As much as the filmmakers tried to make this movie about the trappings of sin in general, it is predominantly about sexual sin, though there’s some wriggle room for the messages to also apply to addictive and repetitive, destructive behaviors. Throughout the film, I found myself doing some mental gymnastics in order to recall a time where I felt that level of unworthiness before God. On one hand, it’s comforting to see how I’ve grown in my relationship with Christ, yet on the other, this struggle to relate to the depths of suffering experienced by these people, feeling shackled by their sin, did, unfortunately, distance me from the film. “I just wasn’t feeling it,” to put it crudely.

That’s not to say that The Heart of Man isn’t useful for people who are more confident in their identity in Christ. As I’ve touched upon, it is wonderful for reflective purposes. There are also many beautiful images and moments that operate as great illustrations and will assist in communicative purposes. It also builds empathy and understanding about what people with addictions are going through in terms of their faith. Overall, The Heart of Man is a gorgeous film that any Christian (that is age appropriate) should see, though your level of engagement with the content is dependent upon your own personal experiences. For some, this will be a deep, impactful, life-changing film.

The Participant’s Guide

The Heart of Man also comes with a book–a Participant’s Guide to the film, which operates similarly to the Bible Studies we upload here at Geeks Under Grace. Book lovers will delight in holding this piece of literature in their hands. From a textural standpoint, it’s a gorgeous book filled with beautiful pictures from the film, coupled with a visually pleasing layout consisting of quotes, notes from the filmmakers, easy to read text, and deep solid questions. The Participant’s Guide breaks the film up into six major scenes and analyses each one with a short study (the book is 122 pages long, though the information is very spaced out given the number of pictures). It’s intended to be a seven-week process, with the first meeting being the screening of the film.

To clarify, it’s important to emphasize that this is a film study. While there was nothing that struck me as being theologically incorrect, the Participant’s Guide is rather filtered from the original source material. That is since The Heart of Man is not a close adaptation of the Biblical narrative, consisting of metaphors and testimonies, and then the Participant’s Guide is based off the film, the book is therefore now two artistic steps away from Scripture. There are no Biblical passages directly quoted within the guide (actually, there is one, but it’s not noted as such).

This is not a good or bad thing–this generalization of Biblical lessons may assist some people who struggle with the language contained within Scripture or are fairly new to the faith and feel rather daunted approaching an ancient text. Other times it’s refreshing to see what we can glean from another’s interpretation, much like sermons. But it’s just something to flag, because ultimately this guide doesn’t replace Scripture, and it’s important to refer back to God’s Word. Having an additional study about the Prodigal Son before watching the film may be a good workaround for those that are uncomfortable with the book’s lack of Bible quotations.

A larger concern involves how this study should be run. The writers suggest that the series can be approached as an individual or as a group, though it becomes clear as the weeks go on that it’s more intended for the latter setup. To quote from the guide’s introduction: “Authentic community is absolutely essential to begin breaking our painful, destructive patterns, so whether you are experiencing this journey individually or with a group, make sure to share with others what you are learning about yourself.” The book definitely encourages opening up to others, though participants may want to take note of the key suggestion there; that it needs to be an authentic community.

It’s a hardcore study designed to make people feel welcome enough to discuss their sexual sins. Other ailments of the soul could be applied, though the language adopted throughout the guide works best when it’s referring to addictive behaviors. As drug and alcohol rehab health workers will know, seeking a community is vitally important for the vast majority of sufferers, as it helps to manage their addiction. However, for Christians that are blessed to not experience this level of compulsion, and are merely going through the daily grind, then this study is too intense and sometimes overly dramatic for their average means. It’s not suitable for a normal, casual Bible Study.

Maybe think this one through before jumping right in. If you’re a facilitator, read the book first to determine whether it’s right for your group.

The problem, of course, is that people can’t always be trusted, and sadly there have been incidences of spiritual abuse within the Church. Care and discernment must be utilized when deciding whom to trust with our darkest secrets. Taking those concerns into account, if I may be so bold as to make a few suggestions, I believe that The Heart of Man’s Participant’s Guide will work best under the following conditions:

  • It must be run by a knowledgeable and experienced facilitator. While the guide tries its best to take a broader approach, attempting to not always be about sexual sins, the fact is that it is subconsciously catered to that market. In doing so, discussions surrounding this topic have a high chance of uncovering past trauma. Facilitators must be equipped to know what to do in these situations. It must be a safe space.
  • Due to the personal nature of the questions, this guide may work best in a one-on-one set up, or a specialized support group. If one does have a desire to run this as a larger event, then it must be made clear from the start that the questions are very forthcoming. Therefore, by attending, people have consented to be willing to share at that level. Take note that the official website offers some guidance and support as to how to run this as a church-wide or “Table Experience” event.
  • Consider doing this series as an intensive, two-day workshop as opposed to a seven-week course. This is due to how each study is structured. It’s not like a streak of sermons where each message turns back and ends with the Gospel message. While the movie has a three-act structure and eventually concludes with the good news of God’s forgiveness, the guide only analyzes a scene at a time, so there’s not as much of a resolution at the end of each session. For instance, in the third week, participants focus on what sins have pushed them over the edge, however, it’ll then be a few more weeks to learn about how God is still with them. That’s a long time for someone struggling with their faith to potentially ponder over their separation from God. While the content is heavy and requires some time to mull over its depth, a shorter time period than what the guide recommends may work better for those who are unclear about God’s salvation.

If an authentic community within a safe environment can be achieved, then this study has the potential to be a wonderful tool, one that will help people reconnect with God. It will change some people’s lives for the better. If you work in mental health, substance abuse clinics, or specialize in sex-related matters, and are looking for new ways to help others, then this movie and guide certainly deserves your attention. For others, it’s an insightful, thought-provoking look into how we fall victim to sin, though while some lessons will serve as reminders to not become complacent, other times the questions seem too intense to be relatable. A great study, but discernment must be adopted when considering its use.