Some residents of Bethlehem, Texas believe that the image they see in a screen door is that of Jesus. Rated “R” for sexual content and some language, including the use of racial epithets.
Part Short Cuts, part Lone Star, part Saved!, with a pinch of Flannery O’Connor thrown in for good measure, Screen Door Jesus will delight a few, infuriate a few, bore a few, and remain unseen by a multitude. That’s a shame, because for all it’s faults, Screen Door Jesus is a sincere attempt to document variations of faith in a Bible belt environment.
The film is made up of a series of intertwining vignettes taken from an anthology of short stories by Christopher Cook. The literary origin is both a blessing and a curse. There are a series of individual epiphanies that probably comprised the climax of various stories, but the various threads resist coming together in a cohesive whole. One solution to this sort of narrative diffuseness is to highlight one or two of the stories and place the others as subplots, much like Million Dollar Baby did with Rope Burns. The drawback of such an approach is that whichever story were highlighted would become the definitive perspective on the shared subject, robbing the film of its ambiguity and the vignettes of their ability to comment on each other. Such a loss would probably cripple this film, since the main thing it has going for it is its unwillingness to stake out a center.
We get a fairly critical portraits of fundamentalism, such as a disapproving mother-in-law who won’t let her son take his sick wife to the doctor. We get sympathetic portraits, such as that of a boy who claims to be an atheist but prays to God for a friend in need. A police officer assigned to guard a denominational synod on the verge of accepting homosexuality from picketers tells the elders that they have thrown out everything in Christianity except Jesus, and we see fundamentalists as intolerant bigots. Then a grandmother who has coerced her grand-kids into being baptized is shut out of her son’s family when her daughter-in-law uses her faith as the reason to ostracize her from the extended family, and we see fundamentalists as victims of intolerance from those representing more moderate denominations.
I did walk out suspecting that the more humanist cop really, deep down, was expressing the film’s heart when he trotted out the tired old rube that Jesus never claimed to be the messiah and that such a claim was only added later by his followers who didn’t understand that Jesus just meant to live the kingdom of God in your heart. Then again, there are people who believe such dogma, and some of them do delight in the pushing their fundamentalist friends’ buttons.
Ultimately it is hard to tell whether the film is messed up in its theological point of view or whether it is merely the characters in it who are mistaken in their beliefs. That some of the beliefs are portrayed more sympathetically than others was pretty clear. What saved the film for me, though, was its ambiguity. In what was for me the most successful story line, a single, devout woman eschews her boyfriend’s advances because she does not believe in premarital sex and does not want to marry someone she is uncertain is a believer. After he breaks up with her (“I want to be the thing that gives your life meaning, not Jesus!”), he has a revelatory experience. I interpreted his response to this experiencing as hardening his heart in resentment against what he thought had cost him his relationship, but my spouse thought that his personal vision leap-frogged him right over her more superficial faith and made him realize that even though she would now have him, they were not well suited.
Those contrasting views are typical of the kind of ambiguity that characterize the film. Those who want a clear articulation of the film’s theological positions and/or and affirmation of their own are not likely to find it here. While I don’t consider myself to be described by the previous sentence, I was nevertheless somewhat irritated by what appeared to be a lack of awareness on the film’s part that claiming there are no definitive answers is itself a kind of answer. There is a safe sort of measured detachment here that reminded me of The Exorcism of Emily Rose. The film isn’t mocking, though, and that’s saying a lot. The characters are exaggerated (hence my reference to Flannery O’Connor) but they aren’t quite caricatures. Some of them are portrayed as ridiculous, but nobody is portrayed as ridiculous because of what he or she believes, only for what he or she does.
One of the things I liked quite a bit about the film was that it examines race relations between black and quite from several different angles. I love how the black woman who owns the home on which the screen door vision appears does not initially attempt to extract payment from others to look upon it. Only when the town’s white photographer begins offering pictures for five dollars does the house owner demand a dollar–which she claims is to make up for people trampling her flowers. There is a lot of that sort of trenchant social observation embedded in the film’s portrayal of how race, religion, and politics get interrelated. If it had been a bit more honed or unified I probably would have really liked the film a lot.