THE 23rd PSALM

2 Stars - Troubling

The cynical nature of modern life makes it difficult to create a film of faith.  Attempting to create a religious version of Paul Haggis Academy Award winning film "Crash" in which racial stereotypes are exposed and explored, director Christopher Odom does so using Christian and moral stereotypes in his film "The 23rd Psalm."  But Odom runs into a host of problems not present within the former film.  The most prevalent of these is the nature of belief and the difficulty of portraying spiritual experiences on film.  Using discordant sight and sound, the visions and empathetic/spiritual encounters are more a distraction than an invitation.  The presence of God is more a question than a solution.  And the ending is more a surprise than a resolution.

But just as problematic is the plot in which Odom tries to present people of faith in the same stereotypically negative expectations of modern life as does Haggis in "Crash."  It works in "Crash," in part, because it is not about the deeper spiritual and moral bonds that tie us together beneath the racial and ethnic stereotypes.  "Crash" exposes the superficiality of modern life by explaining that we are seeking human contact only to find ourselves crashing into one another.  But when these deeper universal religious and moral realities are presented as stereotypes, then the film must go even deeper to find a true spirituality and morality.  This is where the film hints at the solution but does not quite deliver.  Using stereotypical plot advancements and plot resolutions perhaps as a way to reinforce the theme, the only twist in the story comes too little and too late.

The central character of the film is a tormented detective named John Smith (Markhum Stansbury, Jr.).  At times brilliant in his portrayal of a man whose soul is in pain, Smith has been given responsibility to solve the murder of an unusual prostitute named Jessie (Arnita Champion), who dies only blocks from his police station.

The usual suspects are an ensemble of professionals with motivations that are stereotypically immoral.  The shopkeeper William Freeman (Derrick Collins) cares only about his profit, and though he spouts Christian beliefs, he tolerates prostitution next to his shop since he sells prophylactics. The physician, Dr. Najuma Johnson (Niambi Sims), works at the neighborhood clinic but angrily cares nothing for the healing of the poor and needy who come to see her every day. Finally, the minister, Pastor Dennis Luther (Mister Jones), is more concerned with his reputation and spiritual superiority than he is about the true well-being of the people in his congregation.

Paralleling these three suspects are three persons miraculously healed by the "angel of the streets."  These three bear witness to the transformed life of Jessie and tell of healings so miraculous that it is clear Jessie has been blessed by God.  But it is a transformation and a ministry that is difficult to portray on film, as such spiritual events are hard to document in a person's life.

This ambitious undertaking is a film that takes on a topic and a theme that is worthy of continued exploration.  It is a topic that could bring us together in even deeper ways than did the cultural and ethnic stereotypes of "Crash."  That it does not quite succeed does not mean it is not a film worthy of consideration.

 

Discussion:

  1. If you were unaware of the purpose of the film before you saw it, what would you say Christopher Odom is attempting to portray?
  2. The racial and ethnic stereotypes are obviously superficial.  Do you believe the religious and professional stereotypes are just as superficial?  Why or why not?
  3. The resolution of the film explained the inner torment of Detective Smith.  Do you believe this worked or would it have been more interesting to weave the truth about Jessie and John throughout the film?
Posted on June 1, 2011 and filed under 2 STARS, TROUBLING.