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.

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

  • J.R. “Bob” Dobbs and the Church

    SXSW Film Review: 'J.R. “Bob” Dobbs and the Church of the SubGenius'

    Like 8mm films of 1960s “happenings” or videos of 1970s performance art, “J.R. ‘Bob’ Dobbs and the Church of the SubGenius” chronicles a cultural footnote that perhaps should be filed under the heading You Had to Be There. The satirical-absurdist “religion” founded by some Texans actually caught fire among hipsters in the 1980s, influencing some [...]

  • 'Roll Red Roll' Review: Piercing Documentary

    Film Review: 'Roll Red Roll'

    “Roll Red Roll” is a piercingly relevant and disturbing documentary about an infamous high school rape case that took place in Steubenville, Ohio (pop. 18,600), on Aug. 11, 2012. Steubenville, the sort of Friday-night-lights small town that boasts signs that read “Kick off for Jesus,” is a place that’s good at keeping secrets. When the [...]

  • Contract Placeholder Business WGA ATA Agent

    Writers Guild, Hollywood Agents Negotiate With Deadline Looming

    The Writers Guild of America and Hollywood agents have held a sixth negotiating session with a deadline for a new deal 16 days away — and it’s uncertain whether progress is being made. The Association of Talent Agents made counter-proposals at Thursday’s session that contain provisions for more accountability and transparency by agencies for clients [...]

  • Fox Layoffs

    Fox Layoffs Leave Staffers Stunned and Saddened

    Fox employees knew this day was coming. For over a year, the men and women who work at the Century City lot have talked of little else but severance packages and job searches. They knew that when Disney wrapped up its $71.3 billion acquisition of much of 21st Century Fox’s film and television assets, thousands [...]

  • Alan Horn Disney

    Disney Clarifies Film Leadership After Harrowing Day of Fox Layoffs

    Following the dismissal of top executives in distribution, marketing and strategy on Thursday, new 20th Century Fox owner Disney has clarified its new top leadership. Five distinct Fox labels and a portion of their leadership have been welcomed into the Disney fold, the company said. This includes Twentieth Century Fox, Fox Family, Fox Searchlight Pictures, [...]

  • Janelle Monae

    Film News Roundup: Janelle Monae to Star in Film From Gerard Bush, Christopher Renz

    In today’s film news roundup, Janelle Monae will star in a Lionsgate movie, Bill Nighy joins “Emma,” and documentaries on surfer Bethany Hamilton and Asbury Park are dated. CASTINGS More Reviews SXSW Film Review: 'J.R. “Bob” Dobbs and the Church of the SubGenius' Film Review: 'Roll Red Roll' Janelle Monae will star in an untitled [...]

  • Blair Rich Marketing Summit

    Studio Marketing Chiefs Discuss the Theatrical vs. Netflix Oscars Debate

    On a day where a large part of the Fox marketing department was wiped out in the aftermath of the Disney merger, a group of marketing chiefs from other studios and streamers sat down at the Variety Entertainment Marketing Summit presented by Deloitte “to discuss the issues shaping the feature marketing landscape today, including the theatrical [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content