American Jesus: Film Review

American Jesus Poster - P 2013

American Jesus Poster - P 2013

Occasionally interesting material doesn't enlighten anyone who pays attention to religion and culture.

Aram Garriaga collects the most exotic breeds of Christian he can find in the U.S.

A tour through some of the stranger corners of modern Christianity, Aram Garriga's American Jesus is interested not in the Messiah but in the endless odd ways people try to spread his word. Too broadly focused to go deep (and jumbled once it does find something to explore in depth), the doc unearths plenty of subjects who'd make good fodder for stand-alone TV interviews (though it's considerably more sympathetic to them than a Daily Show correspondent would be) but finds little meaning in them as a group. Theatrical prospects are slim, though curiosity may draw some viewers to VOD.

Garriga puts some of his most convincing interviewees first -- surfers and cowboys who, finding little spirituality in conventional churches, seek to commune with the Almighty in nature. Though he'll return to such reasonable ideas later (with men whose ministry to the homeless puts Jesus' teachings into practice), he spends more time with the kooks: A man who repackaged Bibles with porn-friendly covers in hopes of reaching new readers; a former Power Ranger who proudly hawks "the only Christian mixed-martial-arts clothes line"; the inevitable Pentecostal snake-handler. His tone isn't openly mocking, but then it doesn't need to be.

Interviews with authors Mara Einstein and Douglas Rushkoff make interesting points about the branding of religion and its evolution in a capitalist society. But these are quickly discarded in favor of more familiar material: Long sections with Frank Schaeffer rehash how right-leaning politicians co-opted the revulsion Fundamentalists feel toward abortion for their own cynical purposes. This narrative dominates the film's second half, but is weirdly intertwined with unrelated material about junkie-turned-pastor Phil Aguilar. Bouncing between them and other subjects, the film becomes a hodgepodge that will enlighten few viewers.

Production: Caravan USA, Zabriskie Films, Televisio de Catalunya, Corporacion Radiotelevision Espanola, Visualsuspects

Director-editor: Aram Garriga

Screenwriters: Xavi Prat, Aram Garriga

Producers: Carles Torras, Aram Garriga, Larry Fessenden, Brent Kunkle

Executive producer: Carles Torras

Director of photography: Benet Roman

Music: Zlaya Loud, Erisian

Not Rated, 77 minutes