Judge Clark Douglas received orders from God to write this review. God sometimes goes by the name "Michael Stailey."
"Would God ever tell me that I shouldn't be doing this? That's impossible, because he's the one who told me to do it in the first place."
I've had the opportunity to witness a pretty significant chunk of Christian filmmaking over the years. I'm sure that most fair-minded individuals who don't allow their spiritual beliefs to get in the way of their critical thinking would agree with me when I say that the vast majority of it has been pretty bad. I had the opportunity to interview one Christian director a few years back, and he told me that he didn't think all that, "fancy Hollywood nonsense," was necessary when it came to making a film. By "fancy Hollywood nonsense," he was referring to the technical know-how required to make a professional film. "Look, what we're doing is blessed by God," he said. "And it may not have the slickest camera work or the most dramatic acting or the biggest special effects, but if God wants us to make a movie he's going to make sure that it powerfully impacts everyone who sees it."
Now certainly this isn't the mindset of all Christian filmmakers, but the "God will make our movie awesome all by Himself," mentality seems to be a rather popular one (as evidenced by the genre's well-earned reputation of amateurish production values). It's certainly a belief held by Pastor Richard Gazowsky, who in 2004 decided that God had called him to make an epic blockbuster. Gazowsky had no experience in terms of filmmaking (in fact, he had not seen a film until he turned 40 years old), but he informed the members of his Pentecostal church in San Francisco that he was going to make a movie.
This isn't such an extreme thing, right? I mean, a pastor wants to make a movie. Maybe God told him to, maybe God didn't, but it's not a huge deal. However, his plans are perhaps a bit bigger than his budget. Using offerings from friends and his congregation, he puts together a rag-tag team of equally inexperienced actors and crew members, offers them no pay, and flies them to Italy for five days of location shooting. Up until shooting actually begins, everyone is excited. Gazowsky presents us with storyboards and breathless plot presentations that make us wonder if this crazy guy and his wild imagination might just manage to put something fun up on the big screen. The movie is wonderfully titled, Gravity: The Shadow of Joseph, and will supposedly put the biblical story of Joseph in a Star Wars inspired sci-fi setting.
Ah, but once things get going, it all goes downhill. Crew members prove incompetent at their tasks. Equipment breaks down. Cast and crew members get frustrated and start quitting. The bills pile up. Shots turn out badly. Very little usable material is actually gathered from the trip, but Gazowsky is not deterred. He flies back to San Francisco, rents a massive studio from the city and waits for $50 million of funding to come in from his German investors. He then says that God has told him to ask the Germans for 200 million. He instructs his producer in Germany to do so, and keeps waiting. The City of San Francisco wants to know when they're going to get their rent money. Gazowsky boldly tells them that God is testing their faith and that they should continue to believe in him until the German investors deliver the funding. The city responds by shutting off the power to the studio.
You would expect the man to admit that he has made a mistake and try to move on with his life. His church members are like sad sheep, waiting for him to tell them that God doesn't want them to make the movie anymore. Even his own mother calls Gazowsky "naive." Rather than admitting defeat, Gazowsky plunges forward into madness with a tenacity that reminded me of Aguirre, the Wrath of God: he is on a holy mission and there is nothing that will stop him. In the film's later moments, there is a jaw-dropping display of lunacy. Gazowsky feverishly presents God's eight-point plan for the church's future. He begins by telling the congregation that the church will produce 47 films a year and own 8 television networks. That's crazy enough, but there's more. "I have been given a vision of the latest development in camera technology," he cries, "It is a living organism, a camera chip that is a living, breathing organism, and we will patent it and use it for the glory of God!" Oh, and guess what else: "We will be the first group of people in the entire world to colonize a planet in outer space!" He and his church members sing and shout and cry, supposedly out of joy but perhaps out of despair. If this were a mockumentary, it would undoubtedly be criticized for being over-the-top. Considering that everything we see is real is nothing short of bewildering.
Wisely, director Michael Jacobs stays out of the way and refuses to comment on the proceedings. There's no snide Bill Maher-style sermonizing here about the danger of religious nutcases. Had Jacobs chosen to pronounce judgment on Grazowsky rather than letting the audience members take care of that task, his film would have been less effective.
The full-frame transfer is fine if rather unspectacular. Detail suffers a bit at times due to the somewhat hit-and-miss nature of the footage available (a common problem in many documentaries), but otherwise this disc gets the job done. Audio also varies depending on location and the sound equipment that was available at the time (the doc occasionally has to resort to subtitles). Extras include an audio commentary with the director (who takes some time to explain his personal views on the subject of his film), deleted scenes, a trailer, a song written by Grazowsky, and what little footage there actually is of Gravity: The Shadow of Joseph.
This is one of the most genuinely intriguing documentaries I've seen recently. It serves as a cautionary tale for would-be filmmakers (religious or otherwise). More importantly, it offers us a look at the dangers of faith that is not balanced with reason.
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