Review: Act of God

Posted by: Elizabeth Hughes Belzil  //  June 5, 2009 @ 4:31pm

Filed under: Movie Reviews 

There are few phenomena in this universe as evocative and imbued with as much symbolic power as a lightening bolt. When one gazes at these pillars of light descending from the heavens, charged with devastating potential, one understands why pre-technological societies believed them the instruments of gods. In the modern era, scientists have deduced the atmospheric conditions that create lightning storms, however, it remains impossible to predict where exactly lightening will strike. It follows that when lightning strikes ask, "was this a random natural event or was this an act of God?" This question is the focal point of Canadian filmmaker, Jennifer Baichwal's most recent documentary, Act of God.

In a sense the film itself is one gigantic question; it is impressionistic, not didactic. It examines seven different subjects, from places as diverse as Mexico, Las Vegas and Ontario. She allows her subjects to speak without any accompanying text or narration, with even her voice absent from the interviews. Each of these people has in some way been touched by a lightening strike and each feels the same profound need to assign meaning to the event. Though the search for purpose remains an enduring characteristic of the human condition, an incident as dramatic as a lightening strike tends to make this search more pressing.

While this is a worthy subject matter and Baichwal's ambiguous treatment admirable, the film suffers from a weak first half. Far to long is spent with a man named James O'Reilly who, along with several friends (one of which was killed), was struck by lightening twenty-eight years ago on an Ontario farmstead. His narrative drones on and even involves him ludicrously rolling in the grass in a one-man reenactment of the events. Another early segment profiles a French man who curates a lightening museum (a museum housing artifacts hit by lightening) and photographs storms. He takes himself oh-so-seriously, refusing to show his face on film because he "wants nothing between him and the lightening." While in print this may sound intriguing, in reality the man's fascination with lightening comes of as disingenuous and needlessly pretentious. Neither subject contributes much in the way of meaningful metaphysical contemplation and serve as distracters, possibly even detractors from the film's overall thematic cohesion.

By far the most engrossing subjects are the people of the small village of Santa Maria del Rio, Mexico. One day several of the village's children were fatally struck by lightening as they prayed at a local holy monument -- a cross affixed to the summit of an arid mountain peak. In the wake of this tragedy, the children's family members, (all devout Catholics) attempt to make sense of what happened and give it context within their belief set. Many villagers find themselves spiritually confused and their faith wavering. This segment, a matter of fact, brought to mind Ingmar Bergman's, The Virgin Spring (minus the themes of revenge and retribution) where a Christian's daughter is raped and murdered on her way to church. Her parents struggle to discern God's purpose in taking away their only child but when they discover a spring beneath her dead body they take comfort in this small miracle. Though still filled with doubt, they erect a chapel next to the spring. Similarly, the people of Santa Maria del Rio built a chapel beneath the cross and cling to the hope that the lightening strike was God's will, as opposed to a random violent act of nature.

Despite its inconsistency of material, Act of God remains worth a viewing. Interspersed between subject interviews are incredible shots of lightning storms. These shots enhance the sense of mystery that pervades the film. Also, the haunting score, steeped in ambient guitar feedback and punctuated by "found" sounds such as a bows sawing against tin cans and marble rolling around in an ashtray produces an otherworldly feeling. If every aspect of this film had been as perfect as this, it might have been a masterpiece.

Tags: Christine Baichwal, documentary, Canadian film

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