Director: Sam Fischer
Writer: Gracias Choir
Cast: James Woo, Hyemi Choi, Daniel Shin, Philp Park, Paul Lee, Musto Pelinkovicci, David Park, Antonio Garcia
Running time: 55mins
A film which might have better been titled Tonal Dissonance: The Movie, director Sam Fischer’s For Unto Us is the motion picture adaptation of the Gracias Christmas Cantata by the Gracias Choir. Having never seen or heard of that production, I cannot say whether it has done a disservice to the stage version, but I can say that it is in desperate need of some contrast in its storytelling.
There is, of course, plenty of ‘darkness’ that contrasts the coming of ‘light’ through the film. During this re-telling of the traditional Nativity, we get a glimpse of the hardships faced by people returning to their administrative home for the census ordered by their Roman occupiers. Small children collapse on the brink of death, desperate for water. Old women – or in lieu of the real thing, young women whose faces and hair have been dusted in talcum-powder – hack up their lungs as consumption nudges them toward death. Soldiers mock the suffering of the citizens they police, pouring water in the dirt and laughing at them.
The problem is that none of this darkness really serves to build toward the motives and beliefs of any of our characters. We don’t see how this lived experience helps form their hopes, expectations, or doubts regarding the apparent arrival of the Messiah. Everything is awful, and yet simultaneously everything is totally fine – and it makes no sense to even mildly sceptical viewers.
One thing that many Christian productions often fail to address is the concept of doubt. In the mind of a true believer, faith is of the utmost importance. If you really unwaveringly believe in the existence of God, and that Jesus was his son, and all the rest of it, it seems as though doubting that is an almost alien concept. As such, when everyone sees a new star in the sky – the origin of which you might think would be at least the matter of some earnest debate – everyone immediately settles for the first explanation offered: The Messiah is Coming!
Meanwhile, everyone’s reaction to this arrival is the same: vague, undefined hopefulness. In the Nativity plays most people I know suffered through in their childhood, that might be enough. In this case though, we have seen some horrific events, which supposedly give examples of why the son of God needs to make his entrance now, but are something that a baby cannot possibly hope to resolve, whether or not they are part of a divine intervention.
An old man has no money for the taxes he owes the Roman Empire, and so the soldiers sent to collect the fee abduct his daughter as payment. The scene which follows is a rather beautifully constructed chorus of lamentation (all the more noticeable for its depth and texture, compared to the rest of the Hallmark-esque cinematography), with the whole village gathering around him in mourning for his loss. When he finds his way to Jesus, however, his personal story is somehow portrayed as resolved when he lays eyes on the baby.
His daughter has presumably been sold into slavery, he will never see her again, and worse could still befall his community, but God has sent a baby to possibly fix something, at some point in the next 30 years. Might it not take a little more to convince this old man that there is any cause for celebration at the birth of a child completely unable to change his current situation?
It is in moments like this that the shortcomings of the production are made even more overt by a particularly choice montage. Similar to the bizarrely edited trailer for the film (see above), after Jesus is delivered in the famous stable in Bethlehem (sans umbilical cord or placenta, another miracle), images of all the suffering throughout the film are cut together, playing in silence while a particularly uplifting rendition of We Three Kings booms out.
One of the clips features a maniacal King Herod sanctioning the murder of all baby boys in the region (a disputed historical event only ever recorded in the Bible, and only in a single passage for that matter). Again, this is never resolved – if we go by what it says in the verse in Matthew, Herod “slew all the children: that were in Bethlehem” under the age of two, which is a terror that might leave some people’s faith that good times were on the way a little shaken. If such concerns were addressed, For Unto Us might be a bit more relatable for wider audiences – but as it is, it simply ends up in that most bland, unappealing facet of Christian entertainment: a production which preaches to the converted.
The scene which comes closest to giving some definition to its characters centres on the shepherds, who follow the star. They spend most of their time on screen facing verbal derision from locals about how they “smell of poop,” which leads to a warm moment where a shepherd boy’s grandfather explains that King David was also a shepherd, and thus would also have “smelled of poop.” It is a moment with humour and humanity that the rest of the film is crying out for – and one of the few narrative arcs with some meaningful closure.
With the son of God being born among straw and animals, people living in that same social echelon suddenly find they are afforded a mite more respect. Looking at this from the perspective of someone who is not a Christian, I needed a relatable character who I might become more involved with the story through. In this case, it might have been better to set the story around these characters – injecting a little humour, warmth and relatability into the story, and using it to connect with the audience before walking us into this world.
Even then, though, it’s hard to understand what materially is better for these characters now – a flaw that pervades the entire narrative. Having witnessed the agony that is not going to be dispelled any time soon by the advent of Christ, it is hard to get invested in the message of hope we are smacked about the head with. After all, respect doesn’t pay the bills. So, when the shepherd boy asks, “What does it matter if we are dirty and smelly? Jesus has come to us,” it is hard not to cringe. What does it matter that we live short lives without easy access to sanitation, or that we might be sold into slavery by the occupying forces of Rome at any moment? Well, it matters quite a lot actually.
It should be noted that nobody gives an overtly bad performance here. Every actor does what they can with what they are given – but what they are given is just so bland, inoffensive and inhuman that they cannot possibly convince us to invest in what ultimately transpires as The Dullest Story Ever Told.