Critics' Pick

American Jesus (NR)

Documentary 77 min. May 14, 2014
By Alan Scherstuhl
How's this for ambition? In American Jesus, director Aram Garriga endeavors to survey most of contemporary U.S. Christianity, in both its smallest sects and its brigades of evangelicals keen to hasten the end of days, all in the time it takes the eyewear shop at your local mall to whip up a pair of glasses. But what he gets to is arresting.

His documentary is a restless, sunnily shot, one-thing-after-another travelogue of the peculiarities of American worship and belief, and he could have pulled a full movie from most of its many, many pit stops: a West Virginia roadhouse of snake handlers and boogie-woogie piano; 1980s Christian alt-rocker Steve Taylor's bizarre, satirical anthem "I Blew Up the Clinic Real Good"; and tough-guy pastor Keenan Smith, whose Team Impact preaches the word through feats of strength, declaring "[America] was never founded for a freedom of all religions. It was founded for the freedom of Judeo-Christianity."

The vignettes pile up, all fascinating, many heartening. Garriga emphasizes non-denominational pop-ups catering to surfers, bikers, skaters, rockers, and believers disinclined toward mainline churches. Some of the pastors we meet even bother helping out the poor, a thing the Gospels mention more often than clinic-bombing.

The good feelings ebb in the final third, when Garriga turns the film over to journalists and authors such as Michelle Goldberg and Frank Schaeffer, who thumbnail the currents that have given us Left Behind, the Creation Museum and evangelical Zionism. All that deserves a full movie, as do most of the film's subjects — but Garriga's quick treatment of each is distinguished by stirring photography, empathetic interviewing and a shrewd sense of whom to let talk and whom to cut off.
Aram Garriga Aram Garriga, Xavi Prat Glass Eye Pix

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