Monday, August 11, 2014

As It Is in Heaven

AS IT IS IN HEAVEN            C             
USA  (87 mi)  2013  ‘Scope  d:  Joshua Overbay          official site
Shot for a mere $40,000, this small apocalyptic film was interestingly shot in ‘Scope by Isaac Pletcher, examining the cloistered lives of a small religious cult in rural Kentucky where they all live in an isolated old farmhouse on the edge of the woods, where it’s just a short walk to a nearby stream where their members are baptized.  At the film’s opening, the dozen or so members are all dressed in white robes as newcomer David (Chris Nelson) is baptized into their holy order, an event that is met with smiles and hugs and a joyous affirmation.  Shown with a minimal of dialogue, and no backstory, we have no idea who these people are or what led them to this isolated place, but all that are here are devout believers led by their elderly paternalistic preacher Edward (John Lina), suggesting soon they will have the chance to meet their maker, where the group needs to be prepared, driving them into a frenzy promising the end is near, leading them to chant “We are the chosen people!”  No one seems surprised or reluctant, as without any hesitation everyone in this tiny community is on board with the promise of a better day to come.  Jumping ahead a year, their preacher unfortunately falls ill and refuses medical treatment, asking only for prayers, but dies, naming David as his chosen successor, which irks his own son Eamon (Luke Beavers), who believed he was the natural heir apparent.  The funeral service takes place without David who is off in the woods praying for strength, as he has doubts about his own abilities.  It’s a fragile moment, where more than ever they are viewed as lost sheep without guidance, but David steps up and announces he’s received a sign from God that he must lead this group to the promised land.
While Eamon has his doubts and suspicions about David, wondering if perhaps his father was delirious and in a weakened state when he made the choice, as so little is known about this newcomer, where there’s no lack of faith in God, but David may not be the one to lead them, thoughts that he expresses to his mother Azra (Carola Lina), but she assures him they all need to stand behind David, as he is the chosen one.  Again, without any hint of outside information, they welcome a new member (Jin Park) who he baptizes Abiella, where she at least initially expresses uncertainty in her new environment, but group peer pressure helps convert her doubts to absolute faith, which becomes the real focus of the film.  Any doubts the audience may have are immediately exacerbated by a sudden surge of certainty and power in David, whose stature grows from awkward earnestness to supreme leader, where he demands complete obedience from his followers.  Without using religious scripture, or any teachings of Christ, the “anointed one” stirs them into an emotional hysteria by claiming it won’t be long, that their prayers are about to be answered, but they need to come together in unity.  When David announces Heaven is only 30 days away, that they immediately need to go on a 30-day fast to cleanse themselves in preparation, this places a particular hardship on a mother whose baby begins crying endlessly and cannot be soothed, made even worse when they cart all the food away under David’s instructions.  This creates division in the group, as Eamon secretly hides food for the baby, challenging the prevailing order.  This standoff only grows worse, where the film counts off the days as the end nears, much as it would in a suspense thriller, ultimately ending in tragedy, but the group plunges headlong into the future where the obvious question is whether their eyes are open or closed.        

Written by the director’s wife, Ginny Lee Overbay, the film’s weakness is the lack of any emotional connection to any of the characters, who are mere sketches of humanity and never drawn out of their undefined shells.  The director largely draws from his own southern Pentecostal religious background for his first feature, where most of the crew consists of current or already graduated students from Asbury’s Miller Center for Communication Arts in Wilmore, Kentucky, where the director is one of the professors.  The film explores the dangers of an unquestioned faith, recalling charismatic cult leaders like David Koresh, supposedly a prophet from the Branch Davidians religious sect in Waco, Texas who preached that a divine judgment was imminent, leading 82 other Branch Davidian men, women and children to their deaths by fire in a standoff against FBI agents, and Jim Jones, founder and leader of the Peoples Temple who was responsible for the deaths of 909 members of the sect in Jonestown, Guyana, including more than 300 children in a mass suicide from poisoned Kool-Aid.  Sean Durkin’s recent film Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011) explores the ramifications of cult figure John Hawkes, who displays  a Charles Manson like persona where all the females of the cult must submit sexually to him alone, believing he is their savior, where once one buys into this belief, it’s hard to somehow disassociate from this group mentality.  Aided by Abi Van Andel as David’s worshipping disciple Naomi, this film takes us down a similar path as David’s absolute power over this group is consolidated, even in the aftermath of tragedy, where followers are willing to overlook just about anything in their fanatical quest for spiritual redemption.  The question of faith is always present, but there’s also an inherent danger in passive obedience, blindly accepting the prophecies of others as some sort of wish fulfillment, where cult groups always claim to unify behind a cause of spiritual righteousness.  When everyone is seen sipping out of a bottle of wine, however, with promises to meet Jesus Christ that very evening, the inclination is to think this is Kool-Aid.  Overbay has something else in mind, leading to a quietly unsettling moment that feels like a dark and desolate path.    

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