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Son of God (2011)
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by Jay Seaver

"An unlikely but oddly compelling Messiah."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2011 BOSTON UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL: Did Khavn de la Cruz and Michael Noer stumble upon a potentially fascinating movie by pure chance while walking around the streets of Manila? Or did they know about the subject and gracefully insinuate themselves? Or were things somewhat more scripted? On the one hand, it doesn't really matter; the ideas and events of the film are the same either way. And yet, it's worth asking the question, given that this is a movie about taking advantage of faith, whether or not our faith in the film is justified.

As the movie starts, experimental filmmaker Khavn (he's often credited without his surname) and Danish documentarian Noer are shooting in Quiapo, a poor Manila neighborhood, when their path intersects a marching crowd. They're members of the Church of the Black Nazarene. It's a noisy, flamboyant sect, and that seems harmless enough. Then Khavn and Noer find a group claiming that Christ will soon be resurrected, in the Philippines. Not unusual. Then we meet "Son-of-God" (Ali Doron), a diminutive guy with curly white hair who claims to be that resurrection, and who surprisingly lets the filmmakers tag along as he spreads the word.

Is Son-of-God a fraud? Almost certainly. Certain elements come from a standard playbook, and aren't necessarily executed all that well - watch how Doron pulls tumors out of a man during a faith-healing exercise; though it's easy to see those who want to believe falling for it, a closer look makes his hand seem a much more likely source. And yet, it's not all that hard to sympathize with those who believe in Son-of-God; these are people who need to believe in something, after all. And Doron comes across as quite sincere; a confrontation with a believer who lost someone close after having been "cured" by Son-of-God does not play out cynically. Instead, there are moments of guilt and moments that suggest something more like a crisis of faith. Even the skeptical might find themselves very curious about what's going on in Doron's mind here; the pilgrimage that follows certainly seems genuine, rather than something done for show.

That Khavn and Noer shoot the heck out of this movie, and the editing job with Lawrence Ang (also credited as doing sound and some camerawork) is crisp. Especially in Manila, there's a strong feeling of being a fly on the wall, getting to see everything without the camera's presence feeling forced or the cutting seeming meant to hide anything. Indeed, there's often a genuine sense of surprise that we're getting to see something; the camera keeps running right through the moments when the subjects would generally attempt to force it away (and attempts to do so are utterly ineffective). It's really top-notch documentary filmmaking.

At least, up to a point; as Son-of-God makes a pilgrimage to a mountain cave system, Noer, who has never faded completely into the background, becomes much more of a visible presence. It's not all bad - there's something perversely enjoyable about watching the filmmaker and production assistant/interpreter Kristine Kintana lose patience with each other (he seems whiny; she seems to hold him in disdain) - but at a certain point, it hijacks the movie, and the level of self-insertion toward the end makes it seem rather like the structured end of a story arc, even if it doesn't necessarily seem scripted.

That's likely deliberate, of course; a film about a cult, no matter how seemingly benign, should encourage the audience to question assumptions. Khavn and Noer leave it more or less up to the audience - should we trust them, in the way that the poor people of Quiapo trust the local prophets claiming to have knowledge? They seem trustworthy enough, after all.

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originally posted: 04/09/11 14:12:53
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Boston Underground Film Festival For more in the 2011 Boston Underground Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Khavn de la Cruz
  Michael Noer

Written by
  Khavn de la Cruz
  Michael Noer


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