'Words with Gods': Venice Review

Courtesy of Biennale di Venezia
Nine directors tackle manifestations of different religions in often beautifully shot fiction shorts

This spirituality-themed omnibus film contains shorts from directors including Warwick Thornton, Mira Nair, Amos Gitai, Emir Kusturica and Guillermo Arriaga

Words with Gods is an often strikingly shot anthology film that tackles faith in places ranging from the Australian outback to the post-tsunami coast of Japan and from a mosque in Kurdistan to a high-rise in Mumbai. One of the film’s nine directors, Mexican screenwriter and occasional director Guillermo Arriaga, who wrote 21 Grams and Babel, provided the concept for this often fascinating but inherently also very heterogeneous project and also produced, while Nobel Prize-winning Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa decided on the order in which the shorts should be shown.

The ambitious project's out-of-competition premiere in Venice should be the first of a series of festival screenings, though a viable commercial life will probably only be possible if VOD platforms make each segment available separately. That way, cinephiles can choose whether they’d prefer to watch Emir Kusturica’s rather serious look at a day in the life of an Orthodox monk played by the actor-director himself or, on the other end of the spectrum, Alex de la Iglesia’s twist-filled and occasionally hilarious tragicomedy about sin and the need for forgiveness in Catholicism.

After a gorgeously animated black-and-white opening, set to a soulful, strings-driven piece of music, the film proper kicks off with Australian director Warwick Thornton’s True Gods, which, as per the onscreen label, explores "Aboriginal spirituality." The film shows the walk into the desert of a highly pregnant Aboriginal woman (Miranda Tapsell, one of the leads of The Sapphires), who finally goes into labor in the middle of nowhere. Beautifully photographed by Thornton, a cinematographer-turned-director who also shot his own Aboriginal love story Samson & Delilah, the film seems to suggest that life is born not just from the loins of a woman but from the stars and earth itself. One of the most memorable images in the entire anthology is a close-up of the woman’s eye as a fly lands on it: a reflection of what the protagonist sees around her is shown in her eye and, rather startlingly, also includes herself in a dress the color of the surrounding red rocks — a dress that, in reality, she had already shed in preparation of things to come.

It’s quite conventional to open a film with a birth and thus with new life. But an almost immediate corrective is provided by the second and fourth shorts, respectively The Man Who Stole A Duck from Brazilian director Hector Babenco (Kiss of the Spider Woman) and Sufferings from Japan’s Hideo Nakata, who directed the original Ring films.

A look at Brazil’s Umbanda faith, which blends Christian beliefs with elements of African religions, Duck examines the life of a violent man who can’t come to terms with a family tragedy. In Japan, too, a father grieves, here for his wife and two children who were swept away by the 2011 tsunami, which Nakata shows in archive footage. Babenco’s potent visual sense lends itself particularly well to the short format, and Duck’s ending is extremely powerful in all its wordless simplicity.

Nakata, on the other hand, seems to bite off more than he can chew, confronting the age-old question of why innocents have to die in a conversation between the mourning father (Masatoshi Nagase, from Jarmush’s Mystery Train) and a Buddhist monk (Kazuya Takahashi), though that conversation needs more time than this film can provide, with the soothing music over the closing shot of a sunset paling in terms of beauty and emotional impact when compared to Babenco’s. That said, some of the shots of entire housing areas devastated by the tsunami are appropriately eerie and could indeed lead one to question if there is an explanation or justification for such a destructive force.

The third entry, God Room, is directed by Monsoon Wedding’s Mira Nair, who brings her customary eye for family dynamics and light comedy to her story about a young Mumbai boy (Nanam Jain, from Jai Ho) who sees lo-fi versions (think paper-mache heads on human bodies) of the elephant god Ganesh pop up everywhere when his family visits their future luxury apartment in a skyscraper that’s still under construction. The family bickers about the best place for the titular space (also known as a Puja room, where Hindus can worship in-house), though the manifestations suggest Ganesh is simply everywhere.

A combination of gentle humor and family quarreling are also the motor of Sometimes Look Up, the second-to-last short directed by Kurdish filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi (Rhino Season). The story involves the plight of two Muslim brothers in Turkish Kurdistan who, despite being joined at the back of their heads, are very different, with one very pious and the other an Epicurean. Their questions for their Imam are chuckle-inducing, but the funniest gag is visual rather than dialogue-driven and comes from a couple of clever point-of-view shots during prayer time.

However, the anthology’s biggest laughs come without a doubt from The Confession, from irreverent Spanish director Alex de la Iglesia, who already summoned the Antichrist in his feature The Day of the Beast. The story revolves around the mistaken identity of a criminal on the run (Juan Fernandez) who’s dressed in black and who a taxi driver thinks is a priest. As it happens, the motor-mouthed chauffeur’s father is dying and his son would like to have the last rites administered despite the fact his father’s an atheist. Thankfully, this is not only fast, funny and well-acted but also contains some interesting observations on the Catholic needs for compassion and clemency.

Sandwiched between Sufferings and The Confession is the film’s most enigmatic, if also rather entrancing, entry, Book of Amos, from Israel’s Amos Gitai. Like in his recent feature Ana Arabia, the film consists of one continuous shot, here moving sideways from left to right as different actors, most of them Gitai veterans such as his Kadosh star Yael Abecassis, recite verses from the titular book, which is part of the Hebrew Bible. As the actors deliver their oft-impenetrable prophetic texts to the camera, soldiers fight and cars are burnt in the background and even a violent rainstorm descends on these steadfast prophets in modern dress. 

A parable that’s easier to read is Kusturica’s Our Life, which offers a tonic of seriousness right after the delirious events of The Confessions (the film’s tone may surprise viewers familiar with the Serbian director’s more comedic outings). Kusturica, whose lineage includes Orthodox Christians and converted Muslims, casts himself as an Orthodox monk, who carves stones all day he then puts in a couple of bags he has to work very hard to haul up a steep mountain somewhere in Serbia. There is no other reason for this job than simply doing the work; atop the mountain, the monk cries and laughs for different but equally small reasons before throwing the stones down the mountain again. Though the film might seem quite empty and easy on the surface, more than one interpretation is possible, as Our Life could be read as both an allegory of pointless and continued human suffering but also as an ode to human resilience and the transformative power of fully immersive toil.

Arriaga and Llosa have kept Arriaga’s own Mexican entry, God’s Blood, for last and in all its impressive, if certainly bombastic, grandstanding, it’s a very fitting closing segment. The “religion” explored here is atheism and involves a desperate father (Emilio Echevarria, Babel) who’s a professed atheist but who’s started to have disturbing dreams about God. The consequences — if they are consequences — of these dreams are extremely disturbing to watch for the man’s adult son (Demian Bichir, The Bridge) and, as the camera moves into the jungle and along the coast, much of the country’s human and animal inhabitants. Though it’s hard to pin an exact meaning on the film, the striking use of images, special effects, sound and score all turn the film into a literally incredible spectacle.   

The segments are separated by a short animated sequence in the same style as the opening and the total running time of 135 minutes includes at least 10 minutes of credits, all shown at the end. Peter Gabriel composed the music for the animated interstitial sequences and also provided the end-credits song, Show Yourself.  

Production companies: BN Films, Arriaga Garcia Producciones

Directors: Warwick Thornton, Hector Babenco, Mira Nair, Hideo Nakata, Amos Gitai, Alex de la Iglesia, Emir Kusturica,  Bahman Ghobadi, Guillermo Arriaga

Screenplay: Warwick Thornton (True Gods); Hector Babenco (The Man Who Stole a Duck); Zoya Akhtar, Reema Kagti (God Room); Hideo Nakata (Sufferings); Amos Gitai (Book of Amos); Alex de la Iglesia, Jorge Guerricaechevarria (The Confession); Emir Kusturica, Dunja Kusturica (Our Life); Bahman Ghobadi (Sometimes Look Up); God’s Blood (Guillermo Arriaga)

Producers: Alex Garcia, Lucas Akoskin, Guillermo Arriaga

Executive producers: Alex Garcia, Armando Lozano, Jonathan Gray, Adrian Zurita

Music: Peter Gabriel

No rating, 135 minutes