BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM reports from the Wellington Film Society. This week: Lech Majewski, round two.

The Gospel According to Harry was the film which helped establish Lech Majewski’s art-film credentials. Produced by David Lynch’s production company, and starring a then-unknown Viggo Mortensen, the apocalyptic, sci-fi arthouse flick was an absurdist stab at social satire. The title is a reference of sorts to Pasolini’s Gospel According to St. Matthew, and Majewski seems to share Pasolini’s quest in that film for spirituality in a cruel, secular world. And while this is more humorous than resonant, The Gospel According to Harry is a solid entry point into the strange and wonderful worldview of Majewski.

The film is set in the distant future when the Pacific Ocean has dried up, and California looks more like the set of Woman of the Dunes. (The film was actually shot in Poland, in an almost theatrical set-up). The opening scene sets up a Messiah like figure, who sows televisions in the desert, in a scene unfortunately weirdly reminiscent of Paul Schrader’s Cat People. The film cuts to focus on Wes (Mortensen) and Karen (Jennifer Rubin), who live in the desert in a house lacking in walls, a roof and emotional comfort. Their sex is painful, their long-term goals divergent, and their comfort comes in things like golf clubs and exercising in spandex. As their marriage and world collapses around them, and a whole slew of characters from the Mesisah to the President intrude on the couple’s discomfort, Majewski clearly takes a swipe at consumerism and the making of idols of false prophets.

There is also a blatant religious undercurrent – the film is structured in biblical chapters, and imagery such as crucifixion abound. While not particularly subtle – the surrealism is a little too structured for the satire to stick in true surrealist fashion and the critiques struggle to burrow beneath the surface – the winning side-characters (the two leads are dull) carry the attacks on bureaucracy, corporate indifference and materialism. The film is a success visually – the set design makes for great visual jokes, while the austere beachscape makes for a fitting visual accompaniment to the emotions on show. While Majewski has certainly made more interesting films, it’s still an example of a maverick throwing some ideas out there. Even if they don’t all stick, it’s nothing short of compelling.