At a quiet monastery on a vineyard, Brother Anselm (M.E. Hackett) claims to have witnessed a true miracle. He purports to have seen the angel Gabriel himself descend to Earth and initiate a sort of "connection" with Anselm, one that Disney smartly keeps vague. There's further confusion in that Disney actually shows us the encounter, a strangely homoerotic visual that might have worked well in a dream sequence in the Village People's Can't Stop the Music. Toss in the Brother's androgynous look, and Blessed Art Thou is an exciting little mystery right from act one.
The older, superior brothers (played by a crew of character actors led by Bernard Hill, Captain Smith in Titanic) question Anselm's reports. But then Anselm's meeting with Gabriel seems to motivate another, well, miracle. Some reviewers have chosen to give this one away, but I do believe the plot point to be a spoiler, so I won't. It's enough to say that it tests the faith of every member of the small order, in one way or another, and creates infighting within the previously peaceful monastery.
Disney, working from a story by Rachel Ingalls, does a fine job giving the narrative its due time to evolve and develop, but the script peters out where it counts the most -- at the end. The big finale that we hope we'll get doesn't have the passion and humility of the rest of the film, and it wraps too abruptly.
But Disney's first effort (he is credited, by the way, as a contributing writer to 1988's Oliver and Company) is filled with pleasing details -- that of a monk's life, of the workings of a vineyard, of the conversations that emerge between two men who have different interpretations of faith. That kind of attention makes a small project like this an entertaining endeavor. (Perhaps the biggest kick I got out of a film with such a sweet religious bent was that it was playing two doors down from The Exorcist.)
The director also works in an editorial of his own, commenting on the politics of such a place, where a person of free will may join for the love of God, but is given commands by a higher ranking human. Visually, there is a strong connection through Disney's lens between the cell of a monastery and a prison cell.
But for all the heavy commentary, it's surprising how light and easy Blessed Art Thou feels. Depending upon your point-of-view, that could be a strength or a weakness, but at a minimum, I expected a bit more punch at the finish. The film doesn't necessarily demand your 90 minutes in a theater, but, for a thoughtful, eyebrow-raising story, it works. You may now return to associating the Disney name with plush toys.
Not to be confused with O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5
Director: Timothy J. Disney
Producer: William Haney
Screenwriter: Timothy J. Disney