'The Blind Christ' ('El Cristo ciego'): Venice Review

El Cristo ciego - Still 2- H 2016
Courtesy of Venice Film Festival
Has to be seen to be believed. Or not.

This Venice competition entry from Chilean director Christopher Murray ('Manuel de Ribera') stars local TV star Michael Silva as a young man who has been dubbed "the Chilean Christ."

A young man dubbed the “Chilean Christ” undertakes a voyage across the desert to visit an ill friend and, hopefully, perform a miracle in The Blind Christ (El Cristo Ciego), from Chilean writer-director Christopher Murray. Like in his 2010 Rotterdam entry Manuel de Ribera, there is an overarching fictional arc but the details of the film contain a large dose of documentary DNA, with many locals and their actual stories braided into the main narrative. A sensually shot, dust-covered drama that touches on questions of religion, faith and believing but doesn’t really choose sides will never become a mainstream hit, of course. But as an arthouse item, this ballsy Venice competition choice should see interest from distributors willing to, well, believe in the film’s niche potential.

With his elongated face, huge eyes and dark hair, Michael (Michael Silva, the cast’s only professional actor) looks like the Christ Pantocrator from the Byzantine era, except that this youth, despite always walking barefoot and having a general aversion to bathing, is always miraculously clean-shaven.

Michael is traveling across the Pampa del Tamarugal in northern Chile — the country’s most religious region and part of the Atacama Desert — in search of his childhood friend, Mauricio (Mauricio Pinto), whose leg was injured when working in one of the area’s mines. Mockingly dubbed “El Profeta” by some of the incredulous locals, Michael has felt since childhood that God has been inside him and has now decided that the time has come for him to set out, find Mauricio and perform a miracle. His widower father, a man with — of course —a huge white beard, is not impressed: “If you leave, don’t come back”. And though Silva's character has many similarities with the Christ, including a clear affinity for the poor, Murray makes sure it is clear he's his own man.

But let’s rewind a second. The Blind Christ starts, as any Christian film should, with total darkness and then a voice. It booms: “Let me tell you a story,” which will become a familiar refrain as Michael recounts various parables to the people he meets on his travels. And like at least some of their counterparts in the Bible, the exact meaning of these allegories isn’t always directly evident. Murray illustrates them with images in which the non-professional actors play out the tales heard in voice over, with at least some of them (spoiler ahead) turning out to be stories from Michael’s own experience.

Through his interactions with, for example, a woman (Hermelinda Cayo) with an ill mother; an impeccably coiffed youth (Bastian Inostroza) who hopes to become a professional soccer player and a woman (Ana Maria Henriquez) who was abused by her husband, snippets of Michael’s own understanding of God is slowly revealed. He believes that every person has God within them already and that, when people are alone, God will “open His eyes” and manifest himself.

As such, Michael has a very direct concept of faith that has no room for any form of organized religion or even a need for followers. This makes the protagonist a very unusual contemporary religious figure while Murray also handily avoids telling a story that’s too similar to Esteban Larrain’s 2012 Chilean drama The Passion of Michelangelo, about a young man with a direct line to the Virgin Mary who attracts huge crowds and the attention of religious and secular authorities in the Pinochet era.

That’s not to say that some people don’t want to follow El Profeta regardless and in this sense, the movie explores how faith means something different for different people. As showcased in Inti Briones’s sensual cinematography — with its measured zooms, slow sideways pans and shots flooded in soft, enveloping light — the vast Pampa consists of large expanses of arid land dotted with barely-there homes. It’s a destitute corner of the country in which hope seems in short supply, so the desire or even the necessity to believe in something is certainly there. And seeing someone so sure of his own faith can no-doubt be inspiring, especially if the person in question is framed, as Briones does, in a central composition, which literally makes Silva look iconic.  

Though the many small local stories add grit and a very welcome groundedness and Murray is clear about Michael’s final destiny and own desires, some of the film’s spiritual ruminations remain rather open-ended or unresolved, which will frustrate hardcore believers probably just as much as hardcore atheists. Those coming to this otherwise impeccably controlled film with an open mind, however, should fare markedly better. 

Production companies: Jirafa, Cine-Sud Promotion

Cast: Michael Silva, Bastian Inostroza, Ana Maria Henriquez, Mauricio Pinto, Pedro Godoy, Hermelinda Cayo, Hector Mella, Gonzalo Villalobos, Noelia Rubio

Writer-Director: Christopher Murray

Producers: Augusto Matte, Thierry Lenouvel

Executive producers: Bruno Bettati, Pedro Fontaine, Florencia Larrea, Joaquin Echeverria

Director of photography: Inti Briones

Production designer: Angela Torti

Costume designer: Kim Karry

Editor: Andrea Chignoli

Music: Alexander Zekke

Sales: Film Factory


No rating, 85 minutes