Viewers from different religious backgrounds may reach contrasting interpretations of the nine shorts that make up spiritually themed portmanteau pic “Words With Gods,” but most are likely to agree on one key point: It’s altogether a bit of a slog. Masterminded by Mexican writer-director Guillermo Arriaga, this chunky, festival-friendly item has commendable conceptual reach, with each individual film meditating on a particular belief system, from Islam to atheism to Aboriginal spirituality. Scarcely any of them, however, rank with their accomplished helmers’ best work, while their theological insights range from the opaque to the excessively obvious. Iranian director Bahman Ghobadi’s comic fable “Sometimes Look Up” is the only standalone keeper from an omnibus that, commercially at least, hasn’t much of a prayer.
As if “Words With Gods” weren’t a noble enough prospect to begin with, Arriaga and company have rather gilded the lily by securing the services of Peruvian author and Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa to “curate” the films’ order. That doesn’t appear to have been too strenuous a demand on the great man’s time, given the back-and-forth rhythmic shifts of the whole, and the practically non-negotiable logic of beginning with a short about birth and ending with one about death. In between comes a range of approaches, from magical realism to stylized recitation to talky domestic drama, tethered by a mutual earnestness and color-rich widescreen aesthetic. Acting as a buffer between the shorts are a monochrome series of ornately designed, nature-themed animated interludes by animator Maribel Martinez; while certainly pretty, they add unnecessarily to the running time, which clocks in at an imposing 135 minutes.
First up is Australia’s Warwick Thornton, fresh from his contribution to another portmanteau effort — the even heftier “The Turning.” His “True Gods” is the most visually lush of the films, Thornton’s camera luxuriating in the deep russet expanses of the Outback desert, as a lone Aboriginal woman (“The Sapphires” star Miranda Tapsell) searches for a suitable spot in which to give birth. Cue a long, dark night of the soul in which she nears death during labor; though the film is ostensibly rooted in indigenous spirituality, Thornton seems principally awed by the universal miracle of childbirth. The sound of a baby’s tears provides a segue into Hector Babenco’s Umbanda-themed “The Man Who Stole a Duck,” in which an abusive, alcoholic husband, who lets his infant son die after his wife deserts them, seeks spiritual redemption. Straightforward but rather on-the-nose in its study of catharsis, it’s brightened by the saturated jewel tones of its Sao Paulo setting.
Mira Nair’s bright, slight “God Room” is characterized by the director’s customary interest in the clash between cultural tradition and modern practicalities. As an extended family, on the verge of moving into a luxurious on-spec apartment in Mumbai, squabble over the location of the separate prayer room customary in Hindu households, it falls to their youngest member to see — via some Day-Glo hallucinations — that God is all around them.
Hideo Nakata’s “Sufferings” is perhaps the project’s weakest link: a mawkish, stiffly performed grief drama in which a bereaved fisherman, unable to process the loss of his family to the 2011 tsunami, receives healing counsel from a Buddhist monk. More conceptually elaborate is Amos Gitai’s “Book of Amos,” in which passages from the eponymous Hebrew text are recited by a relaying group of street folk (played by faces familiar from Gitai’s past features) as soldiers face down a public riot. Certainly the most topical entry in light of current events, it’s executed with some panache but feels rather exclusive in its biblical and political allusions.
Spanish genre rebel Alex de la Iglesias’ “The Confession” essentially opens at the climax point of a high-octane thriller, as a hitman flees the scene of a botched killing and tumbles into the cab of a devoutly Catholic taxi driver; as the black-clad criminal is mistaken for a priest, things shift into a more blackly comic gear. Unsurprisingly the most propulsive of the chapters, it’s also rather silly stuff — though preferable to the stony dourness of Emir Kusturica’s Christian Orthodox entry “Our Life,” in which a self-sacrificing Serbian priest embarks on a grueling uphill trek to grace.
A shot of invention and wit finally arrives in the shape of Ghobadi’s aforementioned short, which employs a restlessly rotating camera and splintered sound design to convey the dual perspectives of conjoined twin brothers — one more dedicated to Islam than the other — who must negotiate an even trickier impasse when one wishes to pursue a sexual relationship with a woman. Darkly funny and genuinely investigative of its chosen faith, it could be expanded into a full, probing feature. Meanwhile, it’s arguably a deeper examination of religious skepticism than Arriaga’s atheism-themed closer “God’s Blood,” starring the reliably strong Demian Bichir as a Mexican engineer and devout nonbeliever at odds with his elderly father, who claims to be having disturbing visions of God. As the titular metaphor is realized in bombastically literal fashion, atheists in the audience may well feel the film isn’t on their side.
Tech credits across the films range from the proficient to the highly polished. Peter Gabriel, in his capacity as elder statesman of mainstream world music, contributes interstitial compositions as well as a rather dirgey closing-credits tune. The project’s claims to globalism might have been better served, it should be said, by the inclusion of at least one film from Africa — a continent rife with storied spiritualism that is conspicuous by its absence.