And edgy and at times impossible to decipher take on a notorious Biblical text is the first out of four discs to introduce the work of Polish director Lech Majewski to North American audiences. Courtesy of KINO International "The Gospel According to Harry" (1994) rivals the surrealistic visions of David Lynch as well as the stripped of political correctness sarcasm of Marco Ferreri.
I had to see Lech Majewski's The Gospel According to Harry twice to get a better grasp of what the director was attempting to convey. Minimalistic, contemporary, and rich on nuanced subtexts this film is more or less a beautiful enigma I am still unsure I fully understood.
In a beautiful desert somewhere in California a black man stares at the sun. He looks nervous and slightly jaded. The man reaches out, throws a few colorful stones in the sand, and walks away.
Later on. In the same area where the man once threw his stones TV sets have begun blooming.
Much later on. In the middle of the desert Wes (Viggo Mortensen) and Karen (Jennifer Rubin) are having an argument. Karen phones her mother and walks away. Wes goes to bed only to be awakened by the arrival of an IRS tax collector (Jack Kehoe) who begins to ask a series of questions. Karen returns and shortly after a group of government officials set-up a press conference right outside Wes' property. The black man who planted the TV sets reappears with a Molotov cocktail in hand. He attempts to attack the government speaker but it is captured and crucified on a large wooden cross.
The Gospel According to Harry was produced for David Lynch's Propaganda Films and I believe that there is a good reason why. My initial reaction to it, after spending nearly ninety minutes trying to rationalize what I was seeing, was that Lech Majewski is either one of the greatest undiscovered directors or a madman whose grandiose visions are absolutely impossible to unlock. And I am going to be honest with you - I still have not made up my mind which is the correct description.
For starters, this is a truly bizarre film. As noted earlier it is set in the middle of a dessert where Viggo Mortensen's character sleeps, makes love, and ponders the future under the open sky. That is correct, his properties - a fridge, TV, bed, table, phone, etc - are all scattered around, this is his home. The actual story, a misleading string of events, satirizing the morals, conveniences, and advancements of modernity is heavily influenced by religion even though it loudly denounces the canonization of freedom (the dialog effectively targets the social ordinance favored by developed societies where men are corrupted by power, money, and status).
Aside from the truly perplexing script The Gospel According to Harry is built upon the cinematography and music are just as fascinating. Long, continuous, shots from the desert are mixed with a soothing ambient soundtrack revealing a surrealistic panorama of visuals one is more likely to witness in the paintings of Salvador Dali than in a film with a religious context. Not surprisingly, there is something enormously controversial in the manner in which the story is told, filmed, and related to the audience. Suffice to say the sense of utter confusion I experienced mixed with the delight of witnessing such abstract visuals was truly cathartic.
How Does the DVD Look?
Presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 The Gospel According to Harry arrives on DVD courtesy of Kino International. The transfer is watchable but not solid by any stretch of the imagination. Detail varies from good to acceptable to poor (the opening scene where Jesus arrives in the Polish desert is quite indicative) while the color-scheme is quite inconsistent revealing mild color-bleeding. Furthermore, edge-enhancement is prevalent throughout the film but largely tolerable. The actual print provided for this release is interlaced which would result in plenty of "ghosting" for those of you that would be watching The Gospel According to Harry on 16/9 TV sets. Overall, while this DVD release is certainly watchable it is far and away from being solid.
How Does the DVD Sound?
Presented with its original DD English track and optional French subtitles (strangely English subtitles are not provided for this DVD release) the audio treatment here is acceptable. The dialog is easy to follow. The ambient soundtrack comes off the speakers quite well complimenting the film's challenging look nicely. Furthermore, I did not detect any disturbing cracks or pop-ups but there is a bit of noise which during selected scenes you should certainly be able to recognize. Overall, the audio treatment is passable though largely unimpressive.
Aside from an extensive and very informative text-format biography for Lech Majewski this disc offers a lengthy commentary by the Polish director which I was very interested in checking given the film's more than challenging structure. Unfortunately, the comments made in it address the technical construction of The Gospel According to Harry and are limited to specific shooting incidents that do not clarify or explain the sea of controversy in this contemporary take on the famous biblical text.
An incredibly challenging film with an ultra-modern, notably minimalistic, approach to a well known Biblical text The Gospel According to Harry left a lot of unanswered questions in me. Yet, the truly bizarre visuals had me glued to the screen enjoying even what I could not fully comprehend. Suffice to say, I will be revisiting this film very soon, perhaps late at night, hoping to absorb as much of its symbolism as possible. The DVD by KINO is interlaced but still watchable. Strongly recommended if willing to experiment, otherwise look elsewhere for entertainment.