At age 4 he was the world's youngest ordained minister, and he spent his childhood in the '40s and '50s as a media sensation, a holy wunderkind who healed the sick and presided over weddings. This documentary shows him in his '20s, now an extraordinarily charismatic young man making a living on the revivalist circuit, raising the Holy Spirit in towns all across the country. What none of his followers realized is that Marjoe Gortner was in it for the money. He didn't even believe in God.Winner of the 1973 Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary, MARJOE comes as welcome relief from the talking-heads movies traditionally honored with that prize. It is a confrontational expose of evangelism, as seen from the inside out. At its center is curly-haired, fresh-faced Marjoe Gortner, who cooperated with the filming. His fiery antics in the name of the Lord are as much performance art as old-time fire-and-brimstone preaching, and he's very good indeed at getting the faithful to part with their money. Offstage, Marjoe candidly reveals the tricks of his trade--religion, he tells us, is really just another business. It's a business he's about to quit, because he just can't take it anymore.
In general, it's an absorbing film, though we get too many overlong scenes featuring Marjoe in "action": The camera lingers so much on true believers swaying in mystic ecstasy that it seems the filmmakers considered this milieu as exotic as the wilds of Africa. In fact, an undercurrent of disdain for religion runs right through the film, and if there is a major fault here, it is that the directors try too hard to make their case. At one point, a female preacher lectures the crowd on the merits of thrift, and the camera instantly zooms in on a gaudy necklace dangling from her neck. Good point--but it's best to let viewers draw their own conclusion rather than literally shove it in their faces. Unfortunately, there are more than a few heavy-handed moments like this.
I think we're supposed to take MARJOE as an all-encompassing attack on Christianity--if so, it doesn't do the job. There's a strong hint that Marjoe's victims are gullible dolts, but they seem sincere; and if they were taken in, they were taken in by a master manipulator. The movie comes dangerously close to saying that these folks deserve to be taken.As a postscript, Marjoe Gortner went on to have an utterly undistinguished career as an actor in B-movies like FOOD OF THE GODS. Instant karma?