REVIEW: Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway (2019)

jesusshows_posterSpanish filmmaker Miguel Llansó made his feature debut in 2015 with his Ethiopian science fiction film CrumbsA surreal blend of post-apocalyptic road trip, romance, and pop culture references, it was one of the most original and memorable films of its year. Now Llansó and Crumbs star Daniel Tadesse have returned with their sophomore feature: the curiously titled Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway.

In the year 2035, Federal agent Gagano (Tadesse) makes plans to quit his job and open a joint pizerria/martial arts academy with his wife Malin (Gerda-Annette Allikas). Before he can quit, however, he must investigate an attack on the CIA’s virtual network Psychobook. Once entering the virtual environment Gagano is trapped inside, facing everything from insectoid aliens and a generic-label Batman to a stop-motion paper-masked Josef Stalin in his fight to break out.

There are two common factors in Llansó’s features to date. The first is an absolute embrace of surrealism and whimsy. The virtual Internet of Psychobook is rendered in a strange stop motion, which uses actual actors slowly moving their bodies frame by frame and whose online avatars are represented by cut-out paper masks of popular historical and Hollywood figures. Gagono’s journey through this hand-built Matrix is peppered with unexpected and strange encounters. He is hunted down by a black Batman, his famous logo pixellated to avoid any problems with Warner Bros or DC Comics. At one point Gagano’s escape is blocked by Japanese-styled alien insects firing laser guns. Design elements throughout the film, as well as many of its characters, are simply wonderfully – and charmingly – odd.

The second factor a clear and effective narrative. It would be very easy for a director to simply fill their film with irrational random nonsense, and pray the audience stays engaged through the sheer strangeness of it all. Indeed many directors have found critical success doing exactly that. Llansó, on the other hand, gives both Crumbs and Jesus clear and emotionally driven stories that have clear goals and obstacles, and make good use of their characters. It may be a a world of bizarre imagery and unexpected pop culture, but at its heart the audience knows what the protagonists are trying to do and are grounded enough to genuinely root for them. It is this structure pressed into each film that marks them out as genuine achievements, and not simply as self-indulgent diversions. It is the skeleton that allows the meat of the piece – the symbolism and character – to properly function as they would in a more conventional film.

Daniel Tadesse is a wonderful and engaging actor. His physical disability is not hidden here, nor does the screenplay draw any attention to it. He simply inhabits his role and plays it very well. In many ways it marks the model on how performers with disability should be used in feature films: the production has clearly accommodated his needs, and he has been supported to create as realistic and normal character as anybody else’s. He and Gerda-Annette Allikas create a warm and heartfelt relationship that is easy with which to engage. Amusingly all of the actors in the film have been dubbed, giving it an oddly 1960s Italian feel that fits much of it’s cold war aesthetic.

Llansó may be something of an acquired taste. Those viewers willing and able to synch their expectations to this combination of the sentimental and the bizarre will have an absolute ball. Anyone looking for something genuinely original and weird should check this out. It may lack the immediate impact of Llansó’s earlier Crumbs, but it is in pretty much all other respects the superior film.

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