As It Is In Heaven is a hushed film; a quiet film in the way of Gitai’s Kadosh or Reygadas’ Silent Light when these films are focused on the ritual lives of their respective communities. Such films remind us that we watch cinema simply because it can do something the other arts cannot. It allows us to see people doing things that puzzle us, and perhaps even grieve us, in real life. But it gives us the space to see these things in bite-sized pieces, broken down into component elements, activities, and rhythms.
This is significant for films about religion, as absurd rituals and beliefs start to feel more coherent through this exposure. Even if we don’t identify with what we are seeing and hearing, we leave a film understanding someone better.
As It Is In Heaven is unnerving in this respect, as it so eloquently and spaciously documents the life of a Christian cult. In religious studies terms, a “cult” is something that needs to be very carefully defined. It requires the presence of a charismatic leader. A cult is a religious community that is regarded with suspicion by mainstream society. And a cult requires a claim to new revelation, such as secret information about the true nature humanity or the end of the world.
In Overbay’s debut film, the story of this cult picks up after the death of its aged leader. In this power vacuum, a relatively recent initiate claims leadership and prepares them for the coming of the last days. His vision is bold and stark, riffing off biblical images of what happens when the world ends. He calls for a fast. The power struggle forces the community to reassess their commitment to his authority. The end of the world looms in their thoughts. The film dwells on the details of this shift in the shape and fervor of the community, scenes at times simply fading off into its Southern Gothic framing.
It is often hard for us to understand why someone would become a member of this kind of religious community, especially given the abuses of authority and grace so thinly veiled by its religious sanctimony. But As It Is In Heaven is sensitive enough to let us see the psychological drama really present. These adherents are drawn by deeply human needs for hope and security, which have been expelled on this cancerous version of the real thing. The film ends with its feet firmly planted in religious anthropology and religious introspection – but either way it is very promising cinema. If Overbay can produce something so accomplished (truly, this film is marked by Overbay’s sense of nuance and precision) with so little, I am excited to see what he could put together with a bigger budget.
And I am not sure to what extent Overbay would agree, but this is Christian art in a clear, engaging, and historic sense. At times the film feels like a religious faith wrestling with its own object.
As It Is In Heaven is available VOD on February 3. Check their website for your preferred outlet.