As true believers all hope, “Messiah” delivers. Vet photog William Klein gets a handle on Handel by grafting the ridiculous (all manner of slyly lensed evangelical mischief in France, Spain, Moscow, New York, Detroit, Houston, Dallas, Las Vegas and California) onto the sublime (a gifted collection of musicians and soloists performing Handel’s work in a studio). Fests are a foregone conclusion, and enterprising distribs could book this as one would a concert series.
There was no Las Vegas and no “Bodybuilders for Christ” when the composer wrote his lush oratorio in 1741, but the snippets of the King James Bible that librettist Charles Jennens spliced to the music seem prescient and custom-made for most of Klein’s often snide, sometimes majestic imagery.
Venture is divided into three segments — Nativity, Passion, Resurrection — each heralded by Klein’s bold mix ‘n’ match use of typefaces on title cards, followed by the text of the particular lyric being sung. Film’s loosely thematic but essentially plotless melding of music and visuals, and many of the techniques of juxtaposition, are familiar from Godfrey Reggio’s “Koyaanisqatsi” and “Powaqqatsi,” and Ron Fricke’s more recent “Baraka.”
But Klein’s humor and irony leave a distinctive stamp on the form. He’s not trying to alert the world to its unholistic ways; rather, he thrives on them. After spotting an intense young man who looks exactly like the oft-depicted Jesus, Klein asks him to stand stock still on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 57 th Street in Manhattan. If you’ve ever wondered whether Jesus would be heeded if he showed up today, the answer — indifference to a power of 10 — is here.
Be it the Gospel Hands Car Wash admonishing customers to put their faith in Jesus, an arresting sequence in which a woman has an elaborate biblical scene tattooed on her belly or the undeniable power in the careworn faces of babushka-wearing women lighting candles in Moscow on Easter Sunday, Klein seems both baffled and amused that so many people could be suckered in by the Bible. Helmer puts his faith in Handel, and in a primarily American willingness to appear on film whatever the project’s destination.
In literal counterpoint to the top-notch musicians directed by Baroque master Marc Minkowski, Klein tracks down amateur choirs across the U.S. and captures their scrappy-to-rousing approaches to the oratorio. Groups range from the Lavender Light Gay & Lesbian Interracial Choir, whose jubilant participants sing under umbrellas in Times Square by night, to uniformed police officers on the roof of a Dallas garage with their squad cars profiled against the skyline and their conductor packing a pistol alongside his baton.
Klein’s bracing choices suggest that God was on an extended coffee break throughout the 20th century and that most of Christ’s contemporary followers are out to lunch. For every local yokel wearing a “God Bless America” T-shirt, there’s news footage of angry foreigners stomping on or setting fire to an American flag in protest. Casino denizens mindlessly playing the slots or cheering a jackpot are counterbalanced by hollow-eyed refugees and grisly footage of war atrocities and traffic accidents.
The music is accessible and exquisitely performed, the accompanying imagery sometimes merely interesting, occasionally eye-popping. Result is undeniably a hodgepodge, but the music serves as cosmic glue, binding expressions of beatitude at revival meetings with the rapture on the face of a soloist so invested in her text it’s scary.