Here in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, the welcoming setting of Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieri’s “The Gospel of Eureka,” two men in two dressing rooms just a mile and a half apart pick up their eyeliner pencils for two very different roles. One is readying to mouth his prerecorded lines as a Roman centurion at “The Great Passion Play,” where three nights a week during the summer, he’ll crucify Christ. The other is glamming up for drag karaoke night at long-married gay couple Gregory Lee Keating and Walter Burrell’s bar, Eureka Live. Beams Keating, “We’re like a hillbilly Studio 54.”
These parallel performances look like opposites, and most documentaries would probably have you steeling for a fight. Not this one. Jesus himself — that is, Kent Butler, the marketing director and star of the passion play — embraces all of the Lord’s sheep, including the devout Christian transwoman who snickers a Lazarus joke to her husband during the show. And when the bewigged queen begins to lip-sync, he’s chosen a country hymn. At a glance, it’s tough to distinguish between their audiences. Both crowds tend toward thick-necked men in ball caps and smiling Southern women.
“The Gospel of Eureka” is on the hunt for connection. Mosher and Palmieri find it even in a hamlet of 2,073 that’s in the crosshairs of a bigoted anti-transgender bathroom bill. You might already be imagining which people are on both sides, but the residents shun stereotypes. Ask Jayme Brandt, a pastor’s son who owns the religious gift shop, what he thinks of the bill, and it turns out his dad is openly out of the closet. Plus, notes Jayme, according to scripture it was Judas, not Jesus, who tried to inject faith into politics. Here in this rhinestone on the Bible Belt, the filmmakers find that most residents just want to get along, despite loudmouths on the news rattling their sabers. This cheerful small town portrait makes for an idealistic crowd-pleaser (after all, Eureka Springs is the rumored home of healing waters), but this beautiful, and beautifully shot, documentary is a cure for the angry headline blues.
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The directors don’t clutter the screen with identifying chyrons. (We learn Keating and Burrell’s names in the last act when we get a glimpse of them in print, and everyone else required a bit of detective work for the sake of this review.) Instead, the film functions like a rural diner. People just start talking at you, skipping formalities to go straight to feeling like family. They trust the cameras, and in turn, the film treats them with ribbing affection.
Palmieri, who also shot and edited the film, has a sharp eye for details. As the head of the passion play’s adjacent museum boasts, “The works here are priceless,” Palmieri cuts to a deformed portrait of Jesus. His lens is neither naive nor cruel. It simply observes that the blood Butler squeezes on himself every night before climbing on the cross is flavored “zesty mint.” It also registers a local’s Confederate flag license plate, and a pragmatic church billboard that reads, “Too Hot to Change Sign. Sin bad. Jesus good.” When Keating visits the 65-foot-tall Christ of the Ozarks sculpture that looms over Eureka Springs, Palmieri zooms in for a macro close-up of the flies crawling inside the statue’s eyes. Later, he pauses to watch a young boy agog as Butler gets lashed with fake gore. This kid just loves the violence.
Besides retro clips of hate-mongering TV hound Anita Bryant, “The Gospel of Eureka” doesn’t bother to fashion a villain. Once, it hands the mic to a sidewalk protester who wants to explain why the Lord hates transgender people. He can’t, so the film shrugs and moves on to listen to folks who have thought hard about their faith, especially the witty Keating who struggles to convince his husband to fear Hell. After 31 years of marriage, Keating and Burrell still don’t completely agree about religion. So what? Mosher and Palmieri prove a town doesn’t need to be perfectly aligned. It just needs to agree there’s a universal right to personal liberty — you know, basic Constitutional stuff — which requires that people see each other as human beings. That’s easier to do in a tiny village than a sprawling nation. Still, leaving “The Gospel of Eureka,” the audience grinned like they hadn’t felt this optimistic about America in years.