The exploitation of immigrant soldiers in the U.S. military and the personal and psychological costs of the Iraq war are only a few of the targets under attack in “G.I. Jesus,” an ambitious, topical satire that takes a harrowing and humorous look at a Mexican national’s brief furlough from the frontlines. This unruly hodgepodge of actual combat footage and “Manchurian Candidate”-style surrealism is a bold, often clumsy, but always intriguing piece of work, though the pic’s high-def DV look, however appropriate to its ideas and intentions, feels better suited for homevid than bigscreen viewing.
Having enlisted in the Marines in exchange for U.S. citizenship, handsome, hotheaded young Cpl. Jesus Feliciano (Joe Arquette) returns home from Iraq to his wife Claudia (Patricia Mota) and daughter (Telana Lynum), who live in a trailer in the hills above Los Angeles.
In the month or so before his inevitable redeployment, Jesus begins to experience telltale signs of postwar trauma — a series of dreams, hallucinations and bouts of paranoia in which helmer Carl Colpaert (who wrote the screenplay with Deborah Setele and Deon Wilks) gets in his far-from-subtle digs at the American military.
Jesus is visited by a mysterious Iraqi (Maurizio Farhad) only he can see, and the visitor’s belligerent attacks on the armed forces and their indiscriminate killing overseas — which echo the similar discussions in David O. Russell’s “Three Kings” — leave Jesus racked with guilt.
Considerable time is spent on an absurdist dream sequence that suggests a covert military-CIA conspiracy, interrupted by surreal, playful distractions, such as a game of musical chairs.
Colpaert also takes appropriate — if obvious — aim at the military’s recruitment of children and glorification of war, and even manages to knock President Bush and Donald Rumsfeld without uttering a word against them.
With its deliberately flat, stilted acting, this somewhat overextended sequence finds the pic at its most baldly and bluntly satirical. Fred Goodrich’s crisp digital lensing, which gives the film a docu-style look (enhanced by brief but effective incorporation of actual combat footage from Iraq), lends a hyperreal quality, suggesting a perilously thin line between the truth and one’s worst nightmares.
Barely coherent and structurally all over the map, “G.I. Jesus” nevertheless stays afloat with admirable energy and audacity, and its empathy with those impoverished immigrants who voluntarily fight for their citizenship gives it a sobering undertow.
Story’s concerns shift in the second half to the more personal toll of the war on Jesus’ family.
Tech package is rough, in keeping with the pic’s aesthetic. “California Dreamin’ ” is used repeatedly on the soundtrack, to alternately ironic and wistful effect.