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Homily No Grit

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Because they take years to finance and produce, movies follow fashion as much as create it

Conversations with God
Dir. Stephen Simon; writ. Eric DelaBarre, from books by Neale Donald Walsch; feat. Henry Czerny, Vilma Silva, Bruce Page (PG)
Because they take years to finance and produce, movies follow fashion as much as create it. In 2004, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ grossed more than $600 million, while an army of Christian soldiers helped re-elect George W. Bush. In 2006, Bush is ballot-box poison, and Gibson wallows in rehab and disgrace. But, hoping that transforming multiplexes into megachurches might work miracles for their profit margins, studios launched their own faith-based initiatives. 20th Century Fox started a subsidiary, FoxFaith, to market films to evangelical Christians, and the Spiritual Cinema Circle was founded as a DVD subscription service. The San Antonio Independent Christian Film Festival screened 40 entries last weekend.

Conversations with God, the Spiritual Cinema Circle’s first venture into feature production, is soft-core theology. Based on Neale Donald Walsch’s popular inspirational books about how Neale Donald Walsch ended up writing popular inspirational books, the film tells the story of how Neale Donald Walsch overcame rejection and despair to end up writing popular inspirational books. After an automobile accident breaks his neck, Walsch (Czerny) finds himself unemployed, eating out of dumpsters, and sleeping in a park. At 4:30 one morning, a disembodied voice begins berating him about the hollowness of his life. Though it sounds exactly like his own voice, Walsch believes that God is speaking, and, in a loop of perfect narcissism, transcribes everything he hears. His notes become the books that draw rapt audiences to the signings and lectures that, throughout the film, alternate with flashbacks to the author down and out.

Throughout their private conversations, Walsch’s God speaks in oracular platitudes. “Feeling is the language of the soul,” he proclaims, a pronouncement that challenges linguistics and logic. Echoing Jesus and the Beatles, he contends: “Love is all there is.” And, disdainful of mere careerism, Walsch’s voice of God insists: “True masters are those who have chosen to make a life, not a living.” Nevertheless, the high point of Walsch’s recovery from the depths of destitution occurs when he and his agent finesse a Putnam editor into upping an offer for his book from $1 million to $1.5 million. Misreading Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, the Deity here speaks through profits.

In one brief scene, Walsch lectures at a Unitarian center. However, Conver-sations with God is a non-denominational homily without much grit. Its conception of divinity is bland enough to offend no one except those allergic to kitsch. After a few shots of a soulful Walsch brooding against the majestic Oregon landscape, one might long for the bluntness of a hellfire preacher. Producer-director Stephen Simon, whose producing credits include Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, abandoned a thriving Hollywood career in order to pursue the excellent adventure of spirituality through cinema. Yet, like most studio features, his new film ends up celebrating the American doctrine of material success. “I am always with you,” says the voice at the end. That might be reassuring, but an endless loop of auto-colloquy is all we need of hell.

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