In 10 Words or Less
What if God wasn't one of us?
Loves: Myth busting, Jesus, Artistic documentaries, evolution
Likes: Watching hypocrites be exposed, science
Dislikes: Religious dogma
Hates: Hatred based in religious doctrine
I am a Lutheran, which means I am more than open to examining religion. It's how my faith got its start, as Martin Luther questioned the bill of sale he was being given. I see no problem with putting religion under a microscope, as if one truly believes in a faith, a few questions about it shouldn't be a big deal. But try and talk to a fundamentalist about homosexuality, and they act as if saying the word gay will change their orientation. Intense belief, despite the strength it seems to give its owners, seems to be more fragile than almost anything.
Thus, The God Who Wasn't There is going to feel like a knife to the heart for those who subscribe to Christianity without thought. It "attacks" the very heart of the belief system, saying that Jesus Christ may not have walked the earth. Without God sending Jesus to Earth, and him dying to forgive the sins of man, the belief system loses its core, those with questionable faith become lost, and worst of all for the extremists, The Passion of the Christ is just good-old-fashioned fiction.
The film is built around interviews with atheists who, through Bible passages and historic documents, build a case that Jesus was an invention by the writers of the Bible, devised to give the religion a hero to rally around. Now, I believe in Jesus, and my religion, but the argument made in this film is highly plausible, mainly because it is based in reason instead of faith. The whole point of religion is to believe in something you cannot see, so you cannot make a logical argument in support of it. That makes this film's fight a relatively easy win for the atheists, if you're keeping score with logic.
If that was the whole story, it would be unlikely that anyone outside of atheists would watch this movie. Instead, it looks at Jesus through the concept of folklore, and the power that it can have even if it didn't truly happen. While it's true that the film isn't exactly embracing religion with open arms (and is truthfully quite bitter toward it), this film is informed with the feelings of the director, Brian Flemming (off-broadway hit "Bat Boy: The Musical") who attended a Christian school and was a believer until his mind was changed. The interview he has with the director of his former school explains much about why he holds the views he holds, a matter he puts an exclamation point on with the final scene.
The look of the film is very slick, with excellent editing, combining old silent films with TV clips and new footage to create an engaging documentary. In one of the film's stand-out passages, Flemming talks about the interest in Mel Gibson's successful Christ film, and breaks down the amount of violence in the film, using unauthorized footage from the film. The way this segment is edited makes for a harrowing experience, and points out how it plays to an increasingly aggressive form of Christianity that is disturbing and frightening.
The movie does have its shortcomings, mostly in Flemming's somewhat smarmy narration, which is bound to put some people off. The film could also use about 30 more minutes in length. Including some moderate Christians to balance the ledger against the atheists and extreme Christians, and giving more time to discuss the complex issues would make for a more well-rounded film. Though the subject matter is highly interesting, it's a one-sided subject. Delving more into the political and sociological implications of the topic would have been great. Perhaps The Beast, the fictional version of this film coming out in 2006, will do a more in-depth job of exploring Jesus.
On one DVD, the 62-minute movie and a bunch of extras are included, packed in a keepcase. The disc features a static full-frame main menu, which allows viewers to choose to watch the film, select chapters, view bonus features, or sample the music in the movie. The chapter selection menus have a nice group of animated previews and titles for each scene. There are no language options, subtitles or closed captioning.
This full-frame film is made up of source materials and new footage that are of very different levels of visual quality. Some of the older films included have dirt and damage, but for movies more than 100 years old, they look pretty good. They certainly look better than some of the older TV footage. The new video is clean and crisp, with bright color and no dirt or damage, but some slight pixilation is visible. Overall, the movie looks pretty good, mostly depending on the source of the material on-screen.
The audio, presented in simple Dolby Digital 2.0, is strong and clear, with a quality mix of music and dialogue. Sound effects, like the horrifying lashing in the clips from The Passion of the Christ, are just about crystal clear. It's a simple presentation, but a good one.
Two audio commentaries are the biggest extras, but they really aren't commentaries. The first track is actually a phone interview by Flemming with Earl Doherty, the author of The Jesus Puzzle, an exploration of the idea that Jesus never lived. It can be a bit dry at times, but if you find the movie interesting, this interview will be fascinating to you, as Flemming and Doherty discuss all manner of topics related to the history of Jesus.
The second track, titled "The Atheists" is hosted by Flemming, and features clips from several interviews with people in the film, including Richard Carrier, Robert M. Price, Richard Dawkins and The Raving Atheist. Like Flemming says, it's like a radio show, and the pace is pretty good, as the clips are edited together well. Like the first track, this is a great listen if you find the movie to be interesting, especially the talk about a possible American theocracy and holocaust.
Seven extended interview clips with the subjects of the documentary are included. In a cute touch, the clips clock in at a total of 66:06. Not everything here would have worked in the movie, but they are good to have, as they fill out the story of the documentary. The clip with Barbara and David Mikkelson, the people behind urban-legend Web site Snopes.com, is particularly good, as they discuss a legend involving religion, and how it has an easy side to accept and a more difficult part that requires looking beyond the appealing aspects. These are the questions that the thoughtlessly religious people refuse to ask.
There's a excellent slide show titled "Explore the Myth," which looks at the stories about Jesus and traces them throughout time, examining their effect right up through to today's dangerous extremist conservatism, which has left America fractured. If you install the DVD@ccess software included on the DVD, viewing the slide show on DVD-ROM will open Web sites related to the material. The same feature is used on the Cast and Crew bios, which are text screens about those who participated in the movie.
Available on the main menu is an option called "Music," which offers four tracks of music from the soundtrack. Only one "Is This The Real Thing?" is the full-length song, while the other three are clips either 30 seconds or 60 seconds long. The songs, created by DJ Madson, using remixes of artists like David Byrne and Thievery Corporation, are good electronica/instrumental tracks, and worked well in the documentary. Here they are mainly promotional pieces for the soundtrack.
The Bottom Line
Utilizing very modern film techniques and a good sense of humor, Flemming explores the concept of a mythological Jesus with a solid basis in reality. More likely than not, this movie will speak solely to the choir, which is just sad. The idea that a religious person couldn't handle a questioning of their faith exposes a weakness of the soul that really should be discussed. This DVD delivers the film in a quality presentation, with extras that quadruple the amount of content in a positive way with no filler. This is a film that will make you think, while still being entertaining, though its points will be lost on those who could really benefit from it.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Check out 1106 - A Moment in Fictional Time or his convention blog called Conning Fellow
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.