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'American Jesus' a superficial look at Protestant subcultures in U.S.

 'American Jesus' a superficial look at Protestant subcultures in U.S.
A scene from the movie "American Jesus." (Caravan USA LLC)

In the absorbing but superficial "American Jesus," Spanish documentarian Aram Garriga offers a panoramic overview of Protestant subcultures in America, from Anaheim to Long Island. The director pivots in the third act — persuasively, if heavy-handedly — to lay the blame for global geopolitical instability on evangelism's doorstep.

Ignoring almost entirely the progressive sects within American Christianity, Garriga focuses on white male conservatives' reclamation of masculinity as a reason to go to church. The religious leaders that dot his pointillist portrait are bikers, porn stars, mixed-martial arts athletes and ex-cons, on and off the pulpit. In this alt-America, the hip iconoclasts are evangelical rockers like Steve Taylor, whose music video for "I Blew Up the Clinic Real Good" boasts an anachronistic visual charm not shared by its lyrics or sentiment.

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Visits to houses of worship such as the Cowboy Church in rural Texas and the Vintage Faith Church for the hipster-surfers of Santa Cruz make for an enjoyably varied road trip. Garriga aims for depth in the third act, contextualizing religious conservatism as a reaction against the social revolutions of the 1960s. But the reduction of Christianity into just another political group feels like a dilution, a conversion of wine into water.

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"American Jesus."

MPAA rating: None.

Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.

Playing: At Downtown Independent, Los Angeles. Also on VOD.

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