×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Venice Film Review: ‘Free in Deed’

Jake Mahaffy's Venice award-winner is a potent, provocative story of faith misplaced on the storefront-church circuit.

With:
Edwina Findley, David Harewood, RaJay Chandler, Preston Shannon, Prophetess Libra, Helen Bowman, Zoe Lewis, Kathy Smith.

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3510304/?ref_=nm_flmg_act_6

With faith-based filmmaking confidently on the rise in the U.S., a counter-movement of similarly independent agnostic cinema seems a debate-stoking inevitability — with Jake Mahaffy’s searing, skeptical but roundly compassionate ecclesiastical drama “Free in Deed” sure to raise hackles and rally support in equal measure. Pulling few emotional punches with its troubling, fact-inspired story of a self-styled Christian miracle worker’s ill-fated engagement with a desperate single mother and her tormented young son, Mahaffy’s film offers an illuminating immersion into the rarely-depicted world of storefront churches, also placing a welcome spotlight on a disenfranchised sector of African-American society. A deserving winner of top honors in Venice’s Horizons strand, this jagged, productively provocative work needs every such plaudit to convince skittish distributors of its conversation-piece potential. 

For the Ohio-reared, currently New Zealand-based Mahaffy, “Free in Deed” reps a long-time-coming consolidation of promise, arriving seven years after his tough narrative debut, “Wellness,” won the Grand Jury Prize at South by Southwest. His third feature (including 2004’s doc “War”) retains its predecessor’s virtues of conscientious social realism and life-in-the-shadows atmosphere, though to more refined effect. No longer serving as his own cinematographer, Mahaffy works with the gifted Ava Berkofsky to present a darkly authentic view of working-class Memphis, broadly capturing the region’s distressed, makeshift urban construction while employing more expressionistic techniques of lighting and framing to lock its characters into selective, sometimes involuntarily isolated points of view. As such, the pic’s visual texture calls to mind earlier works by Ava DuVernay — whose 2012 breakthrough “Middle of Nowhere,” as it happens, demonstrated the concentrated power of actress Edwina Findley.

Mahaffy’s film gives Findley a remarkable leading showcase, casting her as Melva Neddy, a life-bruised, staunchly God-fearing mother of two driven to the end of her tether by parenting challenges. These mostly involve her autistic pre-teen son Benny (RaJay Chandler, in an extraordinary, physically demanding debut performance), who is afflicted by internal ailments that doctors seem unable to identify. Extreme pain manifests itself in violent, inarticulate, body-bashing bouts of self-harm, exhausting his mother and sometimes even endangering his younger sister Etta (Zoe Lewis). Hastily prescribed medication brings fleeting relief at best.

Thus failed by a system indifferent to the exceptional crises of those within Melva’s disadvantaged demographic, she instead turns to a more welcoming authority: the church. More specifically, that means the informally communal, evangelical places of worship, often family-run and independent of denomination, that pop up in cheaply converted commercial or industrial spaces. Relatively sparse attendance at her chosen outlet is countered by the sheer gospel-fueled vigor of its sermons, where a dynamic Bishop (Preston Shannon) leads his congregation in intense prayer and demonstrative acts of deliverance. It’s there that Melva meets Abe (British thesp David Harewood, from TV’s “Homeland”), an introverted, persistently redemption-seeking outcast who believes himself to be a faith healer, with the power to rid Benny of the supposedly demonic forces that plague him.

Mahaffy’s lean, heavily observational screenplay is drawn from the headline-making 2003 story of ordained Milwaukee pastor Ray Hemphill, who was convicted of child abuse after an attempted exorcism on an eight-year-old boy. Yet this is no sensationalistic true-crime dissection: As starkly and soberingly as Mahaffy dramatizes the family’s unhappy alliance with Abe, the film takes a more expansive, sociological view of the community and environment that fosters such personal damage. “Free in Deed” is by no means flatly condemnatory of the religious institutions that it scrutinizes with such care and credibility. Its raw, extended sermon sequences (reminiscent in their immediacy of those in Robert Duvall’s “The Apostle,” albeit within a very different social sphere) provide a palpable, persuasive sense of the comfort and solidarity they offer regular attendees. No party in this humane, arguably moral-averse parable is written or played with undue consideration of their options or intentions.

Yet there’s no denying that “Free in Deed” takes a strictly secular view of religious devotion, questioning the ultimate value of unwavering faith in a higher power, as well as the social responsibility of the unregulated establishments that proclaim themselves places of spiritual communication. If the film ultimately directs the brunt of its anger toward the inadequate state services that enable storefront churches to become such community centers, its primal depiction of prayer in practice is sure to be viewed as coldly alienating by some devout auds. Others may see it as a more specialized investigation of religious subculture. Either way, the veracity of Mahaffy’s evocation is commendable: Much of the film was shot in the real-life basement church of Faith Temple founder Prophetess Libra (who also appears in a supporting role), and these documentary-style scenes of group worship crackle with electric, ardent human synergy.

Superb, skin-prickling performances by the three principals contribute invaluably to the pic’s stern believability, with Findley utterly wrenching as a dedicated mother pushed to frank irrationality by others’ neglicence. Harewood quietly embodies a complex tangle of grand delusions and naive goodwill as her purported savior; Chandler burrows unnervingly deep into Benny’s impermeable world of suffering. A vivid gallery of non-pro ensemble players contribute grit and local tang. The film’s tangibly dilapidated selection of story-bearing Memphis locations — from sagging hospital corridors to the wintry carcasses of junk-filled swimming pools, all precisely caught in Berkofsky’s lens — plays no less vital a role, conveying an environment that even non-believers might concede could use some spiritual grace.

Venice Film Review: 'Free in Deed'

Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (Horizons), Sept. 10, 2015. Running time: 98 MIN.

Production: (U.S.-New Zealand) A Greyshack Films, Votiv Films production in association with the New Zealand Film Commission. (International sales: Stray Dogs, Paris.) Produced by Mike S. Ryan, Michael Bowes, Brent Stiefel. Co-producer, Georgina Allison Conder.

Crew: Directed, written by Jake Mahaffy. Camera (color, HD), Ava Berkofsky; editors, Mahaffy, Michael Taylor, Simon Price; music, Tim Oxton; music supervisor, Grayson Gilmour; production designer, C. Michael Andrews; costume designer, Jami Villers; sound (Dolby Digital), Brandon Robertson, Stef Allan; visual effects supervisor, Peter Simpson; stunt coordinator, Max Maxwell; associate producers, Adam Hohenberg, Nicki Newburger, Morgan Jon Fox, Ryan Watt; assistant director, Sarah E. Fleming; casting, Craig Fincannon.

With: Edwina Findley, David Harewood, RaJay Chandler, Preston Shannon, Prophetess Libra, Helen Bowman, Zoe Lewis, Kathy Smith.

More Film

  • Loco Films Boards 'Paper Flag' From

    Loco Films Boards 'Paper Flag' From Promising New Director Nathan Ambrosioni (EXCLUSIVE)

    Loco Films has come on board “Paper Flag” (“Les Papiers de drapeaux”), the feature debut of 18-year old French director Nathan Ambrosioni. The film explores the ambivalent relationship between two siblings and the concept of freedom. Guillaume Gouix (“The Returned”) stars as a young adult who has just got out of jail after 12 years [...]

  • 'Who Will Write Our History' Review:

    Film Review: 'Who Will Write Our History'

    The most famous diarist of the Holocaust, Anne Frank, began to write down the drama of her daily life with no ulterior motive (apart from her teenage ambition to write fiction). But in March 1944, the year before she died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, she heard a radio broadcast by a member of the [...]

  • Spider-Man: Far From Home trailer

    Film News Roundup: 'Spider-Man: Far From Home' Trailer Sets Sony Pictures Record

    In today’s film news roundup, “Spider-Man: Far From Home” sets a studio record, Chris Meledandri and Glenn Close are honored, an art-house streaming service is unveiled, and “Cliffs of Freedom” gets a release. TRAILER STATS More Reviews Film Review: 'Who Will Write Our History' Album Review: Mike Posner's 'A Real Good Kid' The first “Spider-Man: [...]

  • Frank Grillo Hell on the Border

    Frank Grillo to Star in the Thriller 'Hell on the Border'

    Frank Grillo is set to star in the action-thriller “Hell on the Border” with Wes Miller directing. Miller also penned the script with Curtis Nichouls, Henry Penzi, and Sasha Yelaun producing. Ron Perlman is also on board to co-star. More Reviews Film Review: 'Who Will Write Our History' Album Review: Mike Posner's 'A Real Good [...]

  • Lee Unkrich Variety Oscars Nominees Lunch

    'Toy Story 3,' 'Coco' Director Lee Unkrich to Exit Pixar After 25 Years

    Lee Unkrich, who won Academy Awards for “Toy Story 3” and “Coco,” is departing Pixar Animation Studios after 25 years to spend more time with his family. Unkrich joined Pixar in 1994 after working as an assistant editor in television on “Silk Stalkings” and “Renegade.” He served as editor on Pixar’s first feature, 1995’s “Toy [...]

  • Velvet Buzzsaw trailer

    Netflix Original Movies: What to Look Forward To in 2019

    Following the biggest fourth-quarter worldwide subscriber gain ever and some controversy around increased prices in the U.S., Netflix looks to keep its momentum going into 2019. From Jan. 18 through March, the streaming site will release 10 original films, including action-packed thrillers, a post-apocalyptic sci-fi, quirky comedies, inspirational dramas, an artistic horror movie and a viral [...]

  • Third 'Fantastic Beasts' Production Start Pushed

    Third 'Fantastic Beasts' Production Start Pushed Back Several Months

    Warner Bros. is pushing back the production start date of its third “Fantastic Beasts” movie several months from July to the late fall, a spokesperson said Friday. Actors have been notified about the change in dates. The untitled third “Fantastic Beasts” movie has not yet set a release date. “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content