The controversy surrounding Christendom’s first openly gay bishop gets a well-intentioned glossing-over in “Love Free or Die,” whose title promises more drama than the film finally delivers. Chronicling Bishop Gene Robinson’s efforts to secure the Episcopal Church’s blessing for gay clergy and homosexual relationships in general, Macky Alston’s raggedly structured docu duly honors his subject’s conviction and courage, but largely sidesteps conflict and skirts the issues in an unrevealing talking-heads format. Following a festival tour, “Love” will do most of its preaching on the smallscreen.
The docu’s inciting conflict involves the Lambeth Conference, an assembly convened by the Archbishop of Canterbury every 10 years for all bishops worldwide to attend. All bishops, that is, except Robinson, whose ordination in 2003 has made him “the most controversial Christian in the world,” a designation more or less confirmed early on in the film. Visiting Canterbury despite having been barred from the 2008 conference, Robinson is invited to speak at a church, where he’s shouted down and condemned by an angry member of the congregation.
“The enemy of love is not hate, but fear,” Robinson tells his listeners after the disruption, and indeed, few ministers have so honestly and forcefully called out the church’s fear of what it doesn’t understand or care to understand. Warm and off-handedly amusing oncamera, forcefully eloquent at the altar, Robinson makes a fascinating camera subject even when the pic’s largely hagiographic thrust avoids the more intriguing particulars of his personal story and beliefs.
We see and hear much of his happy life with his longtime partner, Mark Andrew, but little of the previous marriage that produced his two daughters, both strongly supportive of their two dads. Robinson invokes Christ’s teachings of unconditional love and acceptance for all, but rarely addresses LGBT issues from a theological standpoint or delves into the views on sexuality, celibacy and monogamous commitment he described in his 2008 book “In the Eye of the Storm.”
The decision not to engage with these potentially enlightening details seems born of the misguided notion that a film with an indisputable opinion on its subject needn’t work too hard to sway its audience. By contrast, “For the Bible Tells Me So,” in which Robinson figured prominently, held much the same stance but voiced it with far more energy and emotion. Alston does interview some intelligent dissenters, including Bishop Robert Duncan, who led the opposition to Robinson’s election, and the unsympathetic but eloquent Williams. Elsewhere, however, the opposing view is largely repped by throwaway shots of the usual sign-wavers and hate-spewers; Rev. Rick Warren’s unfortunate comparison of homosexuality to bestiality and pedophilia gets an airing.
Pic soon settles onto a traditional narrative track involving a vote within the Episcopal Church to consecrate gay bishops and bless same-sex relationships, occasioning brief cutaways to other gay and lesbian couples whose own no-doubt fascinating stories feel like afterthoughts here.
Perhaps Alston’s most compelling idea is that there exists a link between the church’s historic marginalization of women, particularly in barring them from roles of leadership, and its demonization of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people. Pinpointing this connection is Barbara Harris, the world’s first ordained female bishop, and easily the film’s most memorable figure. Harris has a wicked, bone-dry wit (“If assholes could fly, this place would be an airport,” she remarks of the Lambeth Conference) that cuts incisively to the heart of this vague, well-meaning endeavor.