Eugene Richards's new documentary, Thy Kingdom Come, is one of several films at Full Frame that engage with religious questions. Its origins lie in director Terrence Malick's To the Wonder, an experimental film that weaves together stories that demonstrate memory's witness to love—both divine and human—amid rural and urban landscapes.
Drawing on Richards's background as a photojournalist concerned with poverty and racial issues in the American South, Malick hired him as the videographer for the film. But the director used only a sampling of Richards's extensive footage from Osage County, Oklahoma. Finding the stories of the people of Bartlesville powerful enough to tell on their own, Richards acquired the rights to the interviews and compiled extended versions of them as a documentary short.
Part of what makes Malick's storytelling unique is his employment of cinéma vérité, a style of filmmaking that incorporates improvisational camera use and sees the filmmaker as a participant-observer in the reality at hand. Capturing life "as it happens" with partly unedited dialogue enhances verisimilitude. It challenges fictional filmmaking by mixing actors with non-actors and questions the parameters of documentary with scripted elements.
From this vantage, Richards filmed actor Javier Bardem, in character as Father Quintana, having unscripted conversations with people in nursing homes, prisons, and hospitals. Bardem plays a priest who struggles to believe in the very thing that he represents to a local church. Making house calls to his parishioners, he wrestles with his faith amid extensive systemic brokenness—poverty, sickness, depression. Inevitably, he must practice the homilies he preaches: "Love is not only a feeling, it is a duty. You shall love. It is a command. You feel that it has died? It is perhaps waiting to be transformed into something higher."
Malick used Richards's footage to illustrate Father Quintana's spiritual evolution, how his vocation is illuminated by the handicapped, the old, the ill, and the impoverished. He is utterly transformed through the stories of strangers, discovering the deeper meaning of loving one's neighbor. But Thy Kingdom Come approaches this footage from the perspective of documentary. The film opens with Bardem stating: "Is this a true story? Yes, I would say so. Is the priest a real priest? No. But it's as if they were waiting for him."
Instead of the fictional Father Quintana's conversion, Richards's film is about the real people the character sought to help: recovering drug addicts, the incarcerated, former Ku Klux Klan leaders. All have experienced hardship and suffering as a normal way of life. The film's title is taken from a line in the Our Father prayer ("Thy kingdom come, thy work be done on earth as it is in heaven"), which is intrinsically a political statement embodying the compassion and love that transform communities.
Perhaps Richards is proposing that it doesn't matter if Javier Bardem is a fictional priest, because what he is offering his cinematic parishioners is his undivided attention, listening and affirming their humanity as they are. With To the Wonder, Thy Kingdom Come completes a diptych of fictional and documentary filmmaking. But ultimately, both films are about the immanence of human presence, the iconic power of the human face.