“But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Matthew 6:6
Given the above verse, I thought it was particularly interesting that conservative evangelicals got all bent out of shape over President Obama’s refusal to hold a public event around the National Day of Prayer. Something about the above verse also makes that national observance seem slightly out of place as well. I think Austrian filmmaker Ulrich Seidl also missed the memo when he made Jesus, You Know (2003), a documentary built around the prayers of six Catholics. The only thing more awkward than filming people praying is watching a film of people praying.
Jesus, You Know is a rather straightforward documentary of six people praying. They address the camera with their prayers, occasionally glancing away in a more penitential posture. These believers pray at great length, and as their prayers progress they seem less like prayers and more like rambling conversations with the filmmaker/audience. The “subjects,” include a middle-aged woman who prays for her family, especially her husband who is ill and tempted to return to a stressful work life that drives him to drink. There is an older man dressed in business attire who prays for a failing relationship with a woman, asking God to “show me how to start talking to her again” and ultimately borrowing Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, “not my will, but yours.” We also listen to a younger man in his late teens or early 20s. He feels marginalized by his family because he is so involved in the life of the church. Another middle-aged woman prays through a crisis of faith, questioning the presence of God. There is another young woman who also has relationship problems, or rather a partner who cannot decide whether or not he will enter a monastery.
By far the most interesting of the lot is the young man who feels alienated from his family because of his beliefs. His prayers made me think of the growing notion that some people might be more naturally religious/spiritual than others, in ways that others are more artistic or mathematical than others. He wrestles with his deep spirituality yet fantasizes about physical perfection. He admits to being attracted to notions of heroism, longing to be a successful soccer player or an action hero in a film. One strength of Seidl’s film is the composition of his scenes. As the young man talks about his desires for physical perfection and strength in action, the image of the crucified Christ looms over his shoulder.
Seidl breaks up the monotony of these lengthy prayers with images of people cleaning the sanctuary, wiping floors and dusting crucifixes. He also includes beautifully-composed scenes of choirs singing hymns in front of ornate altars or below crucifixes. In this way, the film takes on the nature of a worship service, yet the untranslated hymns make it difficult to know how they fit in with the prayers. As such, Jesus, You Know might make for interesting viewing within a faith community as a form of guided spiritual practice. Unfortunately, the lengthy prayers, and the whole notion of filming prayers, might turn off even the most devout viewers.