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Film reviews: The Advent Calendar and The Jesus Music

by
10 December 2021

Stephen Brown views two online releases

Beware of friends bearing stolen Advent calendars in The Advent Calendar

Beware of friends bearing stolen Advent calendars in The Advent Calendar

TRADITIONAL themes associated with Advent abound in a new French film directed by Patrick Ridremont. Death, judgement, heaven, and hell all feature in The Advent Calendar (no BBFC certificate), although not necessarily in that order.

Eva (Eugénie Derouand), now paraplegic, was formerly a ballet dancer. References to Swan Lake may indicate that, like Tchaikovsky’s composition, the film is loosely drawing on the old Undine story. There, as in this new film, a physically entrapped young woman feels cursed as the result of another’s misdeeds. It lies beyond human powers to release her. In this telling, release comes in the form of an old-fashioned Advent calendar from Eva’s friend, the free-spirited Sophie (Honorine Magnier), who stole it while in Germany.

In the spirit of the season, the wheelchair-bound Eva is filled with expectations for “the miracle of Christmas”. Some rules are attached to the gift. The owner must eat whatever is behind each window. Failure to comply will result in death. Initially, the various sweets feel heaven-sent (including a chocolate communion wafer and a baby Jesus, a foretaste of Christmas).

Before long, the surprises start making life hellish. We could guess this would happen, as the film is being streamed on the Shudder channel. Each midnight, a tarnished wooden priest pops out of the top of the calendar and is rarely the harbinger of good news. It appears to offer a Faustian pact: destroy what has hurt Eva, and she will walk again. Even the devil can cite scripture for his purpose, and, sure enough, Jesus’s instruction to arise and walk (John 5.8) is quoted.

Next comes the judgement. Who in Eva’s experience has contributed to her present wretched state? Who will have to die if she is to live and dance again?

Pervading the film are echoes of W. W. Jacob’s chilling tale The Monkey’s Paw. The moral of both is to be careful what you wish for. Eva tries vainly to avert the disasters befalling those whom she cares about and who, unwittingly, have done her some harm. Is it a price that she is willing to pay to regain mobility?

She does have unenviable choices. One longs for some Advent hope to appear for Eva, who “mourns in lonely exile here”. The film is suggesting that this will occur only through the experience of waiting. But this is a horror story, and the period leading to the Saviour’s birth is, in the words of T. S. Eliot’s “The Journey of the Magi”, one of “hard and bitter agony . . . like Death, our death”.

It is to Patrick Ridremont’s credit that he sustains our interest throughout a catalogue of unremitting variations on a theme leading to who knows what. Viewers are kept guessing what the 25 December window might bring.

On Shudder and other platforms.

Amy Grant, featured in The Jesus Music

THE film The Jesus Music (PG-13 classification) tells how relatively primitive songs of praise originating from a small church in Costa Mesa, California, turned into a massive commercial enterprise. More than 50 million people listen each week to Contemporary Christian Music. Talking heads — musicians, agents, record producers, church leaders, etc. — recount its history and the present situation. It is a classic example of what Max Weber called the routinisation of charisma. What starts with an inspiring leader becomes institutionalised as its following grows.

Chuck Smith, pastor of the Calvary Chapel, encouraged a disaffected post-Vietnam War generation to step inside and share their hippie music. As a result, it grew into a megachurch, stimulating the founding of more than 1000 other branches. Billy Graham commends its music despite opposition from Jimmy Swaggart and others. The film makes it clear that, as Christian music progressed, the bigger the divide occurred between African-American and white congregations. Kirk Franklin, the revered black singer-songwriter, is harangued by a white man who tells him he’s not a Christian.

Of all the performers, it would appear that Amy Grant acted as a bridge between Jesus Music and the secular world. Her biggest hits, “The Next Time I Fall” and “Baby, Baby”, don’t have any religious references, but Grant’s Christian beliefs are well-known and have drawn others into faith. Some similarities can perhaps be discerned with the likes of Cliff Richard in the UK — which leads me to note that this film, with scant exceptions, covers only the American scene.

Kirk Franklin, in a still from The Jesus Music

But the music is not monochrome: there is folk, rock, heavy metal, soul, jazz, etc. Senior figures in contemporary church music begin to recognise that a religious movement has been transformed into a money-making machine. Product has taken priority over people. There are notable attempts to return to its roots. Inspired by a paraphrasing of Amos 5.21-24, Michael W. Smith gathered Christian singers together to form a choir. He invited them to drop their egos at the door and perform “I’m Coming Back to the Heart of Worship”.

The Erwin brothers’ film, generously funded by the Gospel Music Association, is strong on description of Jesus Music’s career and has some analysis thrown in. But I was left pondering what was missing. We hear plenty of music, but too few of the lyrics. Those we can hear major on the crucifixion as an act of penal substitution and the imminence of Christ’s coming. While racism and greed are roundly condemned by the film’s main figures, no information is offered about any resultant political activity. We know from other sources that several artists interviewed lean towards the religious Right. Overall, it is the music that overwhelms our souls, leaving us lost in wonder, love, and praise.


On digital platforms from 13 December

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