The Gospel of Us (2012)
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The location is Port Talbot, in Wales, and the original premise was to re-enact a passion play - the type of play that recreates the last few days of the historical figure of Christ but using as much local talent as possible. Oberammergau is the most famous but a similar one occurs in York. The actor Michael Sheen wanted to add so much more to the proceedings. He had grown up in Port Talbot and the M4 literally runs over the the town - and this town has been affected by it - so he asked local groups of amateur dramatics, dance troops, art people to create performance pieces all using the concept of the memories of the place - a form of psychogeography. The original piece that was partly rehearsed and partly improvised on the three or four days was more of a theatrical event, however the film takes the viewpoint from the daughter of the teacher - the teacher being the Christ like figure.
Spoilers below This film differs from the BBC programmes in the fact that the director, Dave McKean, takes the point of view from the daughter of the teacher by super-positioning the teacher's story on to the familiar story of the last three days of Jesus. The female figures of the teacher's family become the characters also known as the Fates. They are some lovely character piece performances including the beachcomber who plays the role of the Baptiser; two friends who are trying to remember their names in a graveyard become named as Lee and John, or Legion together; the Mayor of the fictional Port Talbot is deposed by the CEO of a company named ICU - surely a form of the Roman occupation combined with the CCTV of modern Britain; a great performance by two dogs barking wildly in the river - I don't know if this was planned or not but it seemed to show such a ferocity of nature combined with the dog's enjoyment of being in the water; the head security guard who had elements of looking like both Lenin and The Edge from the band U2 worked as a tormenter to the lead role and to the crowd. Other roles to look out for include the teacher's mother, the disciple and the role of God (who I think was played by the real mayor of Port Talbot) or a roofer to name but a few. Keep an eye out for a newspaper headline in the old people's home.
I could go on about the other roles but that would miss out on the supporting role of the community - the work that went into the memory boxes that are seen briefly in the shopping mall, the dance with the handicapped girl, the names written on the underpass of the M4, the union banner that was ultimately used as shroud. If you get a chance to see the BBC programmes (I think there are three in total) that documented the run up, the rehearsals and the performance of the theatre piece in the street you will recognise both the work and the players from the community.
The community, or the audience, should also be congratulated for their addition to the film with their own portion of the performance filmed on camera phones as well as stills. This was combined with the camera work of the director, Dave McKean, and his small band of camera operators. He should be congratulated on this work where he combines both the public-sourced film and stills with his own film and adds a subtle essence of CG elements. The crucifixion scene, in my own opinion, shows this combination of elements so well. But there are so many examples of how Dave McKean adds his own form of storytelling - the use of chapter headings including "Infinity"; the bird of nothingness; the musical cues that echo the character's moods as well as the combination of the work of a lone guitarist to the stadium rocking of the Manic Street Preachers all within a rugby social club; the loss of noise at the heat of violence within a shopping mall.
A review for this work should not forget the hard work of Michael Sheen, whose dream it was to create an event for his home town of Port Talbot; the work before with the story and the community paid off handsomely in the performance piece and in the film; his dedication to the project led to a revival of the event in the early part of 2012 where the world premiere of the film was held in, of course, Port Talbot. As well as the work of Owen Sheers who wrote the script and the novelisation of the work.
I conclude this review by urging you to watch this film and learn from it, be it the religious point of view from the teacher's daughter or from the community spirit's point of view from coming together and remembering memories or through the true artwork and cinematography of the work. A DVD of this film will be released soon and more information of the film can be found at https://www.facebook.com/TheGospelOfUs
The updated version features Michael Sheen as a man who has gone missing for 40 days and 40 nights, and returns to his hometown of Port Talbot to "listen" to its story. In the universe of the film, Port Talbot is under threat from a greedy corporation called ICU, which is planning something called the Passover Project, a new add-on to the M4 that goes past Port Talbot but also is after some unspecified valuable mineral under the town and wishes to clear Port Talbot away in order to extract it.
The man becomes known as The Teacher after saving a woman tricked into being a suicide bomber, and becomes a popular rallying point for the townspeople who feel inspired by his presence to resist the designs ICU has for the town as he reminds them of its history through the stories of the town. Eventually, ICU tires of this and accuses him of being an insurgent out to spark an uprising, and has him arrested and sentenced to be crucified after a sham trial. He finally "remembers" his former life in Port Talbot and tells the crowd of it, and dies on the cross before being apparently resurrected, having fulfilled his purpose of reminding Port Talbot of who it is and what it has lost.
And there you have it - swap the Romans for ICU, Jerusalem for Port Talbot and Jesus for "The Teacher" and it's the story of Jesus that everyone knows. This was a major event last year, and it's still talked about now. It can be seen on Youtube as many took videos on their phones, but Dave McKean's film takes that footage along with professionally shot footage from the National Theatre of Wales and ties it all together into a film that is much easier to watch and far more satisfying.
McKean's direction clarifies certain points that I missed from the footage on Youtube, such as the characters of the Teacher's wife, daughter and mother-in-law, the significance of whom I missed and adds a certain otherworldly feeling that is missing from seeing unedited footage of the live event. It lends the whole story a coherence that it was lacking before, and makes the story quite enjoyable to follow.
However, in some respects I felt that the updating of the Gospel story to modern day Port Talbot harmed certain aspects of it. The events depicted in the Gospels allegedly took place long before living memory and in a far different time than today, and so trying to transplant them to the modern world isn't going to be entirely successful.
The main problem is the power enjoyed by the ICU corporation, which is able to pretty much condemn a man to a torturous death in public without any interference during the carrying out of the "sentence" or legal ramification afterwards. The film has no documentary aspect but presents the events to us straight, and I had a problem suspending my disbelief and not picking holes in this aspect for its two hours running time.
The idea of the council and South Wales Police allowing ICU to carry out a summary execution doesn't really sit well with me as a plot point I could buy into either, and I felt watching it that in reality the ICU corporation would have faced at least an inquiry and upon the commencement of the attempt to crucify the Teacher arrests for conspiracy to murder and assault.
And here we've reached the problem of updating the story of Jesus and replaying the events in modern times: since the time of Jesus, humanity has progressed far enough so that in all likelihood someone acting like Jesus in the modern day would be taken to a mental health clinic rather than executed (indeed, in Jerusalem the local police occasionally take in sufferers of "Jerusalem Syndrome", people claiming to the Messiah) and so despite a valiant attempt to update the story I never felt I could fully engage with it the way I would with a more fantasy-based film.
I'm over-analyzing a bit here. The main point of the film is really to make the viewer think a bit about the story of Port Talbot and how the town has suffered somewhat at the hands of numerous companies and other outside agencies seeking to make the practice of capitalism easier for themselves. The construction of the M4, while linking Wales to the centre of England, also tore a hole through many local communities in doing so and this point is keenly made here.
While we gained jobs and convenience for business we also may have lost something valuable as the price of the fast travel and ease of commerce, and the real point of the play at least seemed to me to be to get the viewer thinking about what the real price of that is. In that endeavor, it's far more successful and as I said I was actually able to sympathize with the idea of how we may have sacrificed such things as our sense of community in the pursuit of material wealth and the price we all pay for it now.
As an updated version of the story of Jesus, I'm not so sure it works. However, for anyone from South Wales or with an interest in the history of the area I think it offers some very interesting things.