Jesus of the Desert

in 57th Festival Internacional de Cine de Cartagena de Indias

by Godfrey Cheshire

The Blind Christ (El Cristo Ciego), a mysterious, engrossing drama by Chilean director Christopher Murray, opens with darkness and the spoken words, “Let me tell you a story,” which perhaps is a contemporary variant on, “In the beginning was the Word.”

We see a boy named Michael go into the wilderness with his friend Mauricio, whom he asks to nail his hand to plank of wood. By the light of the fire, Mauricio does as he’s asked. Michael’s mother has recently died, and his resulting pain apparently has convinced him that an imitation of Christ’s suffering can bring him closer to God. The result of this, we later see, is the revelation that God is within.

Now Michael is grown and learns that his old friend has been injured in a mining accident and is laid up in a town in the desert. Since he believes he has realized his divinity by looking inward, he decides to venture out to Mauricio and offer the miraculous cure he’s convinced he’s capable of. Michael’s father, who has the mein and mane of an Old Testament patriarch, brusquely tells him, “If you go, don’t come back.”

Played by Michael Silva, the only professional actor in the cast, Michael has the elongated face and doleful dark eyes of an El Greco saint. His quiet placidity also recalls several heroes in the films of Robert Bresson, where the concern with faith is omnipresent.

As he journeys across northern Chile’s Pampa del Tamarugal, whose desert vistas might have pleased John Ford or Sam Peckinpah, word of Michael’s belief in his powers spreads, and the reactions vary, much as feelings about religious claims do everywhere. When he’s called “the Prophet” by some, it’s with same mocking disbelief that got Jesus dubbed “King of the Jews” by his tormentors. Yet others embrace his reputation, hungering to believe in someone or something that can help them.

One intriguing aspect of the film’s design is that Murray has interwoven documentary elements by having Michael encounter real people who evidently tell their own stories in speaking with him. These include a beautiful young man who hopes to become a professional soccer player; a woman who has been abused by her husband; and another who speaks movingly about caring for her aged mother.

In its setting and religious iconography, the film evokes Bunuel’s Simon of the Desert. But Bunuel’s gleefully sarcastic anti-clericalism is hardly what’s on offer from Murray, who seems intent on probing something more elusive: spiritual ambiguity.

The Blind Christ is an ideal film for an age in which many people embrace “spirituality without religion.” Michael’s stance is only an extreme example of that. He has no need for a church, doctrine or followers. He believes he has realized the Truth and it has given him certain powers. But what if he can’t manifest those powers in the way he intends, or that others expect? Does that disprove the original vision, or is it only another necessary challenge on the path of faith, i.e. self-realization?

In phrasing things like this, Murray suggestively parallels two levels of meaning: 1) the elements of doubt that Jesus experiences in the New Testament, from the temptations of the desert to his cry of agonized abandonment on the Cross (in this regard, the film it recalls is Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ”); and 2) the doubts that many modern people experience even after they’ve found a congenial frame for their spiritual impulses.

Ultimately, although providing certain answers regarding Michael, Murray leaves viewers with a tantalizing double helix of belief and doubt. And that may be the greatest gift he could give any filmgoer willing to ponder the unavoidability of ambiguity in the pursuit of spiritual meaning. The Blind Christ is also mounted with great stylistic assurance, with the elegant browns and russet desertscapes of Inti Briones’ cinematography helping weave the film’s mesmerizing spell.