A Question of Faith [a.k.a. Blessed Art Thou]

| April 4, 2001

Watching A Question Of Faith, I am struck again with my ability to accept images of evil in film more readily than images of miracles. Why, for example, do I find The Exorcist more compelling than this film? Is it based in my feelings about God and Satan? Or is it Hollywood conditioning (i.e., “evil is more dramatic”). Or is it simply that any religious experience, when treated literally or “realistically,” loses its power of mystery.
This last suggests that The Exorcist’s strength as a film lies in the fact that it does not literally represent the demons. They are left to our imagination. The mystery is one of emotional power, not reason. Even Agnes Of God, to which this film owes a slight debt, evokes more mystery and is more troubling for me than A Question Of Faith. This film is ultimately an intellectual discussion rather than an evocative experience.
When I realize that I find literal depictions of the Devil just as unengaging as literal depictions of angels, the issue definitely seems to be one of imagination. The most memorable films for me are the ones that create an evocative experience. Few recent films have been able to present literal representations of religious experiences while retaining a sense of spiritual power and mystery. Though both are flawed, the two films that immediately come to mind are The Rapture and Holy Smoke.
Like Jane Campion’s Holy Smoke, A Question Of Faith takes a very bold step in showing the audience a miraculous religious vision within the first few minutes of the film. The angel Gabriel visits a young and rather androgynous monk, Anselm (M.E. Hackett), who is a former surfer residing now for a number of years at a small monastery and winery. The imagery is handled so literally that it almost seems laughable, Gabriel floating through the air towards Anselm. The scene ends just as the angel stands before the man, and the exact nature of their interaction is unclear.
The implication becomes clear through several monks’ assumptions after hearing Anselm’s recounting of the event; these monks believe that Anselm’s description of the encounter is simply a veiled account of his having a sexual affair with the gardener’s son or one of the other monks. This thread of homosexuality and/or homoeroticism runs throughout the film in a variety of ways.
I don’t know what monasteries are really like, but this one sure doesn’t fit my stereotype. The monks presented here are a range of men, most attractive and several quite hip (and even tattooed), more the kinds of guys you’d expect to see at a frat house than at a monastery. There are sun-streaked shots of these young men playing soccer and relaxing as well as working in the winery. Though not exploited in the way that most Hollywood films often do, there’s even a scene where we see one of the young men shirtless. These images by themselves would seem completely innocent, but as they build along with the accusations and thinly veiled homophobia directed at Anselm by some of the older monks, the film seems to be deliberately creating a certain sense of homoeroticism. Add to this the actual results of Anselm’s encounter with Gabriel, with its ensuing offer by one of the more beautiful Brothers to be Anselm’s companion, and you’ve got more implication than I quite know what to do with.
For there is a miracle, and if you don’t want the film spoiled for you, then you need to stop reading here. I’m about to give away the nature of the miracle. Initially Anselm is confined to his cell for refusing to recant his story. After a number of days, he is finally allowed to rejoin the other monks, and with his arrival at the dinner table, the astute audience member will realize that Anselm has changed. Soon this change is confirmed by the monk who serves as physician to the monastery, Anselm has become a woman. A pregnant woman. Anselm seems to take this change in stride, and there are actually several rather sensually charged scenes where Anselm becomes increasingly comfortable with the change.
As the film progresses, Anselm develops into more and more of a Christ-like figure. Three of the Brothers shift from friends to followers, and ultimately one will ask to be her husband. However, Anselm is a source of grave concern to the Abbot, who sees this event
as potentially the work of the Devil, just as the physician keeps proposing biological reasons for what is happening. No one, except Anselm and her disciples, seems willing to consider the possibility that indeed this is a Holy event. Instead, within this small religious community, Anselm is persecuted and betrayed.
Director and screenwriter, Timothy J. Disney, whose great Uncle was Walt Disney thankfully keeps the didactic discussions streamlined, but the film still feels rather mechanical in its construction and not entirely cohesive in its story logic. For example, there is no satisfactory explanation as to why the Abbot will not tell any of his superiors or the Church about what is happening. He simply locks Anselm away. He tries to explain himself to one Monk in particular, whose confession frames the film as a flashback. They often stand or sit or walk together to discuss some aspect of faith that is brought into question by Anselm’s presence, but these staged dialogue exchanges grind any sense of visual style to a halt, making sure we aren’t distracted from the important words they’re saying. Once Disney learns how to actually use the camera when characters are talking, he’ll be on the road to finding better ways for the audience to experience the story rather than be told the story, and he may develop into a pretty good filmmaker.

About the Author:

Josef Steiff Joe Steiff would gladly spend his days and nights watching movies and TV with a little writing on the side. Oh, and teach at Columbia College in Chicago. And maybe play Mass Effect. But sleep gets in the way. He's made a few films. edited Popular Culture and Philosophy volumes on Battlestar Galactica, Anime, Manga and Sherlock Holmes for Open Court Books, wrote The Complete Idiot's Guide to Independent Filmmaking and is a co-author of Storytelling Across Worlds: Transmedia for Creatives and Producers.
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