Easter. Port Talbot is in a battle for its life. Authoritarian forces have taken over and the town is in thrall to ICU, a sinister and merciless corporation depleting the town of its resources with scant regard for the residents. The atmosphere is explosive. Resistance is inevitable. When a company man and suicide bomber clash on the beach, catastrophe is only averted by the intervention of a softly spoken man who had disappeared 40 days earlier. Revealed later as the Teacher (Michael Sheen), he attracts followers and becomes a focus for the Resistance. His influence quickly draws the attention of ICU, who perceive him as a danger who must be removed at all costs. Taking inspiration from one of the defining narratives of our times, this contemporary re-telling of the Passion story took place across the town, with the people of Port Talbot as its cast, crew and heroes. Written by
The Passion (summary of incidents related in the so-called «gospels» of the Bible, describing the ordeal experienced by Jesus of Nazareth, preferably from his baptism in the Jordan river, until his resurrection) has inspired so many works in painting, literature, sculpture, theater, film, etcetera, that one more will make no harm, even if the public knows in advance what to expect. And what is good news if that the new attempt is very good: I refer to «The Gospel of Us: The Passion of Port Talbot», a British film released in 2012 by Dave McKean, based on the play staged in 2011 by actor Michael Sheen in Wales. The film is mostly the record of the only performance, made that year during Easter all around Port Talbot. The most famous similar experience (with its respective film version) may be the one made in the Oberammergau, a German community that has been representing a «Passion» of medieval origin since 1633, first to ward off the plague and now to attract tourism. In Panamá, there was an equal experiment, when the Spanish priest José Ramón Condomines, repeated the strategy in the municipality of San Francisco de la Montaña, and I am almost sure that there must be similar projects in several places. I arrived to Port Talbot in a curious way: I watched the film version of David Haig's play, «My Son Jack» (2007), about the death of Jack Kipling (Daniel Radcliffe), son of writer Rudyard Kipling (Haig), during I World War, somehow triggered by the incendiary warmonger and imperialist spirit of his father. To my surprise, the role of Jack's best friend, was played by Welsh actor John-Paul Macleod, who thirteen years ago was cast as little Taliesin Jones in Martin Duffy's beautiful film, «The Testament of Taliesin Jones». I inquired what had been the evolution of Macleod and came across «The Gospel of Us», in which he plays one of the (8) apostles (no, this adaptation thankfully took creative liberties and avoided any sanctimonious loyalty). Actor Michael Sheen (seldom seen in leading roles, but often appearing in films, as «The Queen», «Blood Diamond», «Underworld», «Kingdom of Heaven», «The Four Feathers») returned to Port Talbot and, although the city is not characterized by its arts, he was able to recruit choirs, bands, singers, musicians, theater groups, carpenters and authorities. Then he summoned the people and collected their stories and experiences, and he wrote the text, adapting the main events of the Passion, to which he incorporated local dramas, as the disappearance of a sector of the city, following industrialization and progress. The final script was co-directed with Bill Mitchell. In the plot, the city is in danger of disappearing, due to the developmental projects of a powerful company that has decided that the city is unnecessary for its plan to extract minerals from the land. In this context, a man who had been missing for 40 days and nights reappears. He is called The Master, he sides with the protest and become a victim of the clash of two factions, reaching the dramatic resolution that includes torture, crucifixion and resurrection. In between scenes of the play performed live, Sheen inserted ingenious images and sequences (as the return of the dead loved-ones, the meeting of the Master with a daughter and ex-wife that he cannot remember, the conversion of Barabbas into a terrorist, the last Supper in a community center with musical acts, and the temptation of the Devil, evoked with simplicity and a 'demon' that is scarier for its resonance in our everyday lives and realities... Nothing like this was ever evoked by Pasolini or by Wyler, Scorsese, Jodorowsky, Buñuel, Griffith, Ince, Zecca, Niblo, and much less by Gibson, Rice or Lloyd Webber. While the film has a strong documentary tone, McKean is not a mere illustrator, but an outstanding visual artist. For reference, see his other films, as his beautiful first feature «MirrorMask» (2005), his shorts «N(eon)» (2002) and «Tan-Y-Groes» (2012, included on the DVD, from images he took in Port Talbot), or Alfonso Cuarón's «Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban», for which he was the conceptual artist. All the digital possibilities to manipulate images are used by McKean to recreate a universe of high visual richness, with commendable restraint, without going to excesses. McKean made every effort to control the running time of the movie (fine deleted scenes are included in the DVD), but the third act (trial, torture , ordeal...) is a bit overlong, with gratuitous cellos, choirs and fake blood... although most probably the faithful followers of the Passion will think the opposite. In any case this is quality risky cinema, mixing fiction, documentary, animation and experimentation, and offering a product that I recommend for all its attractive, different and original beauty.
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