Screens From here to interminable



'Screen Door Jesus' makes a putatively holy moment feel like a lifetime

The Alamodome might never sport the logo of a permanently resident NFL team, but about 20 years ago San Antonio acquired its own holy icon. For several summer nights, the image of the Virgin Mary appeared to appear on the wall of a South Side garage. The event drew worshipers, gossipers, scoffers, and peddlers. So did the apparition of Jesus on a back porch in Port Neches, Texas in 1969; it also aroused the interest of author Christopher Cook. The occurrence of Scriptural likenesses - on a shroud in Turin, a highway in Chicago, a pastry sold on eBay, but never in Tehran, Beijing, or Bangkok - is a Rorschach test that tells us more about the viewer than what is viewed.

Mother Harper (Cynthia Dorn) finds Jesus on a screen door in a small West Texas town, a discovery that leads to an un-harmonic convergence of the faithful, the curious, and the greedy.

For his first feature film, based on Cook's short stories, writer-director Kirk Davis follows more than a dozen disparate characters in a Biblically named town in East Texas. Instead of wise men, this Lone Star Bethlehem draws a couple of wildcatting wise guys who plot their enrichment by drilling oil from under municipal property. The married mayor of Bethlehem is covertly cavorting with a luscious young extortionist. The town's chief of (perhaps only) police woos a wealthy beauty who refuses to accept sex or marriage unless he accepts Christ. "I don't want to spend my life with somebody I can't spend eternity with," she explains. Interpreting a church sermon on the Parable of the Good Samaritan as a lesson in prudence, a white bank president proceeds to refuse a loan to a desperate black man. Two boys spend the summer with a Pentecostal grandmother who infuriates their Catholic mother by having them baptized. Placing her trust in divine providence, a woman forbids her gravely ill daughter-in-law to be hospitalized. At Bethlehem's Trinity Ecumenical Center, a scholarly conference on Biblical inerrancy draws a busload of angry fundamentalists who denounce the iniquity of homosexuality.

Screen Door Jesus
Writ. & dir. Kirk Davis, based on short stories by Christopher Cook; feat. Myk Watford, Cynthia Dorn, C. Anthony Jackson, Scarlett McAlister, Richard Dillard (R)

Amid this unholy mess, Mother Harper (Dorn) looks at her screen door following an unusual evening hailstorm and sees the image of Jesus. A crowd of the devout soon collects, but, exasperated by the noisy throng congregating on her front lawn day after day, she tries to collect an admission fee. An enterprising youngster hawks photos of the bizarre phenomenon. But the most brazen attempt to exploit Mother Harper's screen-door Jesus is that of director Davis, who struggles to use it to justify and unify the motley threads in a crazy quilt that offers neither warmth nor inspiration. It might have taken supernatural intervention to keep aloft all the balls of religion, race, class, and avarice that Davis tosses into the air, but I fail to detect evidence of a miracle here.

As Ronette, a gold-digging hussy eager to make her way out of Bethlehem and into Dallas, Scarlett McAlister lights up the screen of Screen Door Jesus. However, much of the rest of the film seems to suffer from the power outage that occurs late in the proceedings. Filmed in Austin, Bastrop, and Lockhart, Screen Door Jesus is an independent local production that ponders the eternal but merely feels interminable.

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