Jennifer Gerber’s debut feature is a piece that will certainly provoke a powerful reaction. Described as an intense emotional drama, ‘The Revival’ explores the tensions between Southern Baptist Christianity, modern life, and gay relationships with a blunt edge that will be too much for some – but may be necessary for many.
In the age of Trump and a new kind of right-wing radicalism, a film of this topic feels eerily relevant; the film’s setting is a small town in Arkansas, populated largely by Evangelical Christians, and a post-screening Q&A revealed that 70% of this town voted for Trump in real life. Our protagonist, Eli, is a pastor who wishes to transform the way that his congregation views religion. Eli cannot stand the way that modern Christians twist their faith to suit themselves and aims to educate against the use of God to justify wrongdoing. He’s fully engaged in his faith, with just one problem; he’s gay, and must fight against his own hypocrisy when rugged drifter Daniel saunters into his life.
Eli keeps his attraction in check at first, choosing instead to care for Daniel as any good Christian should – tending to his wounds, providing him with food, and educating him on the correct pronunciation of “Proust”. Eli even arranges for Daniel to stay at his father’s cabin. These actions are reminiscent of a Godly figure, and Gerber’s arrangement of these scenes contributes to this vision of Eli as a saint; Daniel is often positioned beneath Eli on the screen, whether he is sitting or simply obscured slightly in the background. Channelling his sexual attraction into acceptable care-giving can only last so long, however. After a few nights, Daniel takes matters into his own hands, kissing Eli as he is washing up dishes. Eli protests mildly – he “cannot do this”, after all, as a married pastor – but his faith is weakened almost instantly, and he acquiesces to his desires.
This romance is not the driving force behind the film’s plot, however. Besides a residual wish for Eli to live his life according to his natural inclinations, there isn’t much reason for the audience to root for the pair to be together. In this sense, Daniel could be pretty much anybody, and his lack of character development is a definite weak point for the film. The reasoning behind his homelessness is not explored in any great depth, nor is the story behind his own sexuality, and the inclusion of a more captivating romance could have provided the softening touch that the film sorely needs by its denouement.
Instead, ‘The Revival’ focuses on the turbulence associated with being gay and religious. The film paints a picture of modern middle America, veering from the autumnal shades of dense hunting ground to the clean, crisp edges of Christian imagery, to the run-down liquor store that exploits the weaknesses of so many. Every character aches of stereotype, but these characters have their own sins to bear nonetheless. These caricatures (the inbred cousin, the redneck hunter, the mousy wife) are afforded their own fleshed-out backstories, to the extent that it’s difficult not to empathise with them at times. That is, until their violent beliefs are unearthed by the discovery of Eli’s illicit affair, and reality comes back to the forefront.
The level of violence in this film is certainly a discussion point, and an element that many have found fault with. Gay films have historically resorted to the tragic ending, and sometimes the LGBTQ+ community just needs a happy romance. Without dismissing this valid criticism, we need to question: does applying this ideal as a rule censor the genuine experiences of those that have to live with this kind of violence? There’s certainly a weighty discussion to be had about the responsibility of the media, but ‘The Revival’ also bears another responsibility – to draw attention to the realities of repressed sexuality in a culture that allows people to use their religion as justification for hate.
‘The Revival’ currently has no UK or US wide release date. For the rest of our BFI Flare film coverage, click here.