A spiritually guided man in Chile’s impoverished north crosses the desert thinking he can perform a miracle and heal an injured friend in Christopher Murray’s belabored tone poem, “The Blind Christ.” The director succeeds in conveying the sense of those living in desiccated communities forgotten by the government, who have lost all hope and turn to religion as a last resort. Yet while striving for something magisterial, the film is too often dulled by over-studied lifelessness. Attractively though monochromatically shot, “Blind Christ” means to be a sympathetic reflection on the desire for faith, but its calculated solemnity generally pushes away an empathic response. Festivals fond of elegiac South American films that use non-professional indigenous people as actors (practically a genre unto their own) will ensure “Blind” is seen.
Murray’s co-directed debut “Manuel de Ribera” was also a moral drama with a fable-like overlay, though this, his first solo effort in making a feature, is even more invested in the use of storytelling to convey a message about the space that faith inhabits when all else is gone. In many ways, it’s the polar opposite of Luis Buñuel’s “Simon of the Desert,” whose scathing depiction of a desert hermit’s temptations offers little sympathy to those who rely on religion.
As boys, Michael and Mauricio wandered into the desert, where Michael’s desire to be a Christ-like figure led him to ask his friend to nail his hands to a tree. After they had bandaged his wounds, Michael waited for a sign from God; finally, before a bonfire, he felt God speak to him through the flames. As an adult, Michael (Michael Silva, the sole professional actor in the cast) is convinced the Lord can’t be found on the outside, but within. Locals ridicule his Christ-like vibes, tauntingly calling him “prophet” much as Herod mocked Jesus with the moniker “King of the Jews.” When Michael learns that Mauricio (Mauricio Pinto) has severely injured his leg, he leaves to find his friend and perform a miracle.
To the accompaniment of unsettled chords, Michael sets off barefoot, arriving at a community of people worshiping a statue of St. Lawrence. To get the citizens to shift their devotion from the saint to God, he tells them a story of a man who worked so hard making statues representing the life of Jesus that he forgot to pray, and disaster ensued. Michael’s iconoclasm is received unfavorably, and he’s punished.
Next he meets teen Bastián (Bastián Inostroza), who offers to help him find Mauricio. They continue walking the dusty plain of the Pampa del Tamarugal, encountering a succession of people whose lives of hardship make them either turn to religion or reject the efficacy of God’s intervention. While convinced that something of Christ is inside him, Michael remains concerned that God might not use him as a conduit, putting added pressure on him as people learn of his unwarranted reputation as an effective dispenser of blessings.
Michael is a conflicted character in many ways: He says he doesn’t believe in religion (as opposed to faith), though he agrees to baptize people in a river scene straight out of paintings of John the Baptist at the River Jordan. His beliefs are tested, yet since divinity is meant to be within, he’s able to imagine he’s simply not calling up the Spirit properly. Murray is sympathetic to the need for faith more than he’s approving of faith itself, and the best scenes in the film are those where the attention shifts from Michael to the people he meets, such as Hermelinda (Hermelinda Cayo) ,who movingly tells of her struggles being the sole caregiver to her elderly mother.
Unsurprisingly, the actors are revealing parts of their life stories, which is why they have an authenticity so lacking with Michael, who walks through the film in a miasma of one-note placidity (plus his storytelling is overworked). He’s not an earthy, communist Jesus in the Pasolini mold, but a vaguely ethereal character more deluded than holy, which makes it difficult to appreciate Murray’s goals apart from his aesthetic choices. In addition, the use of indigenous people as stand-ins for New Testament figures has come to feel clichéd.
What the film lacks in psychological conception is occasionally made up for in visual style. A scene of Michael and Mauricio as boys, silhouetted by the fading light against the desert mounds, has the quality of a striking illustration, and while no other shot goes that far artistically, the overall look, notwithstanding the soporific dun-colored palette, is pleasing. The same is not true of Alexander Zekke’s music, which sometimes resembles an orchestra warming up.