Parable: Four Films by Rolf Forsberg

| September 24, 2017

Before his death earlier this year at the age of 92, filmmaker Rolf Forsberg participated in the restoration of his most famous work, “Parable” (1964) and participated in interviews about his filmmaking process and philosophy that have since been packaged alongside four of his nowadays all-but-forgotten works on DVD.  This set, Parable: Four Films by Rolf Forsberg, is currently available thanks to co-producer Ron Hall of Festival Films (whose earliest works I wrote about back in 2012) and Gospel Films Archive. The DVD and VOD versions have been released by Vision Video, and the set collects Forsberg’s shorts “Parable,” “The Antkeeper” (1966), “Ark” (1970), and “One Friday” (1973).

Produced for the Protestant & Orthodox Pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, Forsberg’s “Parable” depicts the rise in popularity among the masses of a wandering, selfless clown-Jesus. The parallel between the story of Jesus Christ and the nameless clown’s rise and torturous fall are perhaps obvious, but this is not to say the film hasn’t a powerful message to offer viewers of any faith or lack thereof. It becomes apparent through this first film in the collection that, religion aside, Forsberg’s concerns were every bit as humanistic in focus as they were spiritual. In fact, I watched the film with my son, and when I asked what he thought the film was about, he declared confidently, “Not being mean to people!” No mere propagandist, Forsberg’s work serves as a powerful plea for human decency with the potential to be appreciated by a broad spectrum of viewers.

In 1966, The Lutheran Church in America produced Forsberg’s Fred Gwynne-narrated “The Antkeeper,” an allegory of the history of mankind with ants serving as a surrogate for humanity, cast out of an idyllic mountain-top garden to toil in the sands below. The most blatantly religious film of the bunch, “The Antkeeper” has much the same to say as “Parable,” only with a more blatant Christ-figure at its center and tons of ants filmed in incredible close-up. The film’s central concern is criticizing the greed, selfishness and warmongering of this allegorical civilization, and contrasting that with the alternative philosophy of peace and selflessness brought to the ant society by the literal ant-Jesus. Standing in his way, however, is the half-bearded/half-maiden devil god Bruja, who rules from a volcano-side false garden, spreading fear, mistrust and lies among the ants. It’s bizarre, Fellini-esque retelling of the Christ story that really has to be seen to be believed.

Forsberg was capable of so much more than telling and retelling the story of Christ, however. His far more grounded-in-reality, apocalyptic “Ark” (1970) serves as a warning about the dangers of continued pollution that’s all-too-upsetting and relevant from a modern perspective. This time Forsberg envisions human greed and destructiveness in part through the metaphor of the rat, invading the protagonist’s self-made natural paradise and upending the perfectly balanced habitat he’d created in the middle of a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

The final film in the collection, “One Friday” (1973), relates the events of a speculative race war, inspired by Forsberg’s time as a Chicago television director working closely with black communities. During his time in Chicago, he spoke with those who believed America on the verge of a race war and used that as fuel for this story of an innocent toddler wandering precariously through the middle of a warzone. The film doesn’t come out against black militarism or even black communities in general either, though. And that’s refreshing to see. Instead, Forsberg places the blame on anyone who would commit an act of violence on the basis of race alone and chooses to spread a message of racial unity.

Journeying through the imagination of Rolf Forsberg reveals him to have been a passionate, visual storyteller who belonged in cinema. His films are emotional, pleading warnings, yet rarely does Forsberg get preachy. Only in “The Antkeeper” could you say any of these films are so religious as to be entirely faith-specific. Even though “Ark” ends with a reference to Noah and the Ark, there too Forsberg uses his lens to craft a parable for the very real and pressing problems of modern man, facing environmental destruction on a global scale that he pleads with us to recognize and avoid at all costs.

Forsberg may not have found mainstream success. His films were short format and they were spiritual. But he was a filmmaker with a keen eye for cinema, able to tell a story through visual metaphors and character action perhaps as well as the impressionistic filmmakers he so clearly admired.

As such, though I typically don’t find myself reviewing or even recommending religious films, I find myself here offering up high praise for Parable: Four Films by Rolf Forsberg. Each film in the set is accompanied by a lengthy introduction with Forsberg himself from the aforementioned interviews, explaining each project’s inception and production. In these interviews, Forsberg also discusses his perspective on each film’s messages and provides insight into his approach to the projects as a devoutly religious filmmaker, making them invaluable in contextualizing the man’s work.

To purchase Parable: Four Films by Rolf Forsberg on DVD or Digital Download, visit: http://www.lostandrare.com/order.htm. And you can learn more about Forsberg and his work here:  http://www.lostandrare.com/filmmaker.htm

About the Author:

Jef is a writer and educator in Chicago, Illinois. He holds a degree in Media & Cinema Studies from DePaul University, but sometimes he drops it and picks it back up again. He's also the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com and is fueled entirely by coffee (as if you couldn't tell).
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