On View: Eugene Richards Hears American Confessions

By David Schonauer   Wednesday March 7, 2018

The films of Terrence Malick are not easy to encapsulate.

That includes his 2012 feature To The Wonder, which told the story of a man (Ben Affleck) and woman (Olga Kurylenko) who meet in France and move to a small town in Oklahoma to start a life together. There, problems arise in their relationship. The experimental drama also starred actor Javier Bardem as a priest in the town who is struggling with his faith.

In 2010, the acclaimed photojournalist Eugene Richards was hired to join the crew of Malick’s film and tasked with doing early research by going to the town of Bartlesville, Oklahoma, with Bardem and finding real residents who would interact with the actor in his role as a priest.

A local Episcopal priest pointed Richards to likely subjects — people who had sought his guidance. Bardem was dressed as a priest while Richards filmed him talking to the locals. Some of them recognized Bardem, and others didn’t.

As he told The New Yorker recently, the “basic question of ‘Tell me a little bit about yourself’ grew into something else.”

When Malick’s feature was released, Richards was surprised by how little of the footage he’d shot was used in the final cut — as Indiewire  notes, Malick is notorious about cutting footage; Bardem’s role was reduced largely to that of a voiceover. But Richards remained intrigued by the conversations he’d filmed, which included a former Ku Klux Klan leader telling Bardem about his decision to renounce his racist past, an overworked mother talking about the night she slept as her child drowned, and a black inmate at the Osage Country Jail talking about with the actor about life behind bars. Another woman talks about being sexually assaulted.

After years of effort, Richards arranged to get the rights to the footage. Now he has turned the work into a 43-minute film called Thy Kingdom Come, which will premiere at the SXSW festival (March 9-18) in Austin, Texas. Below is the first trailer for the film:

“The outpouring of devastating memories and heightened emotion can give the viewer a queasy feeling that truth and fiction are joining too seamlessly,” writes Chris Wiley at The New Yorker.

Here, a documentary photographer who has chronicled his wife’s struggle with cancer, urban and rural poverty in America, and drug use, among other topics, records the real stories of Americans as told to a movie star in the garb of a priest. Richards says all the subjects were told beforehand that they were participating in an act of fiction, and that Bardem was not a priest.

In the end, it didn’t matter to them. "Absolutely no one cared, in the end, who he was, except that he was there to listen,” Richards notes.


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