'The Gospel of the Flesh' ('El evangelio de la carne'): Film Review

The Gospel of the Flesh Still - H 2014
Courtesy of La Soga Producciones

The Gospel of the Flesh Still - H 2014

Three lives in search of a miracle, drawn with artistry and raw power

Peru’s Oscars entry is a three-story criss-crosser about spiritual and physical survival

Like the shadow of death, the shadow of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Amores perros hangs a little too heavily over Eduardo Mendoza de Echave’s The Gospel of the Flesh, whose title false suggests that we’re in for some heavy-duty Catholic intellectualism. In fact, this is a snappily-paced and engrossing take on the struggle for physical and emotional survival whose virtues -- primarily the virtue of really caring for its characters -- outweigh its mainly stylistic faults. Featuring a cast that’s like a who’s who of Peruvian film, and repping a massive improvement over Mendoza de Echave’s previous work -- which includes Snuff Dogs, a low-budget English-language thriller -- The Gospel of the Flesh is a film that Peruvian cinema can be proud of.

It’s hardly original, but at least it steals from high-class places. A Trainspotting-lite opening chase has Gamarra (a lugubrious-featured Giovanni Ciccia) and Ramirez (Lucho Caceres) chasing youth gang leader Narciso (Sebastian Monteghirfo) through the streets of Lima, ending up with a pistol barrel in a mouth and a quick fade before the flashback begins. Gamarra is an undercover cop whose wife Julia (Jimena Lindo) has a disease which the doctors can’t identify. Store worker Nancy (Cindy Diaz) falls for Gamarra and suggests a way of raising money for Julia’s treatment.

Aging for bus driver Felix (Ismael Contreras) is abandoned by his wife and daughters in a hospital for reasons which become clear only later. On leaving hospital he gets a job forging documents, meanwhile seeking redemption by joining a religious brotherhood, setting himself the target of carrying the brotherhood’s procession float during the city’s October religious celebrations. In the third story, Narciso’s younger brother is arrested for an accidental killing. Narciso takes on the task of getting his brother out before he is transferred to a proper jail, which would presumably destroy him, meanwhile trying to keep at bay his rival for the leadership of the gang.

Gospel tells a classic story about people with good motive being forced to do bad things and then being judged as bad people. It’s this human angle which the script focuses on, turning it into a critique of a society in which simply being good isn’t an option.

Though not always well-judged, the film’s messiness is all in its characters’ edge-of-madness lives and not in its tight, clockwork-like structure, which handles a large cast well and feels polished despite its uncertain pacing. Some really powerful emotions are transmitted over the startling final minutes, with the lives of these unfortunates suddenly acquiring a newly spiritual dimension. The last scene is a striking mix of apparent documentary and fiction which is so potent that even the fact that it features Albinoni’s cinematically overused Adagio can be forgiven.

At another level, Gospel is a homage to life in Lima in the same way that Perros was to Mexico City -- albeit without the earlier film’s high-class strand. This is a city of religious believers but with hospitals that are too expensive for most people, where young men will defend their soccer team with their lives, and where the only real redemption comes in the form of money which people don’t have. A few scenes feature kickboxing in a cage, which comes too close to the dog-fighting scenes in Perros for comfort. It may be all be a little too romantically gritty, but as a backdrop to a teeming, busy movie -- indeed, as the motor driving the movie -- it’s just fine.

Performances are inevitably variable as pros and first timers are mixed together, but passion mostly makes up for what’s lacking in polish. Standouts are Ciccia, especially when baffled by tragedy in the film’s tenderest moments opposite Lindo, and the perpetually downbeat Contreras, who never lets us forget Felix’s inner fragility.

In the early scenes, the score is a distraction, but luckily it quietens down later into an attractive, plucked ukulele theme which lends real poignancy through a couple of sequences. Photography is often typical, urgent hand-held, delivering little that’s new. Sadly, Gospel features the last performance by Aristotoles Picho, who plays an underworld criminal from his wheelchair with dark, brooding power.

Production companies: La Soga Producciones, Los Dados Eternos
Cast: Giovanni Ciccia, Lucho Caceres, Sebastian Monteghirfo, Ismael Contreras, Jimena Lindo, Cindy Diaz, Aristotoles Picho
Director: Eduardo Mendoza de Echave
Screenwriters: Eduardo Mendoza de Echave, Ursula Vilca Garcia
Producer: Gustavo Sanchez
Director of photography: Mario Bassino
Editor: Eric Williams
Production designer: Cecilia Herrera
Composer: Jorge Sabogal Dellpiane
Sales: La Soga Producciones

No rating, 109 minutes