Wednesday, May 13, 2009

BenX: Autistic Gospel

We don't appreciate foreign cinema enough in this country. Absolute gems like this Belgian film about a boy with Asperger's go completely unnoticed. It was entered for consideration for the "Best Foreign Film" category at the Academy Awards in 2008, but didn't even get the nomination. There is no way there were 5 better films last year. This is an amazing movie.

Now that there is absolutely no suspense as far as my opinion of the movie - go rent it. Stop reading what I think and go watch the film. Then come back and tell me if you saw the same things I did.


BenX is ingenious in its construction. It is told partly through documentary style interviews, partly through a linear narrative, partly through fantasies of the main character, and partly through the main character's interactions in a MMORPG. Through this jumble of different approaches we get into the head of Ben, an autistic boy, in a way I would not have thought possible in film.

The presenting subject of the film is autism, or possibly bullying, but these are really just the outward form. The real genre of this movie is gospel. By getting you into the head of this autistic boy, and helping you understand autism as you never have before this movie sets you up for a remarkable transformation, which turns the situation on its head and makes you see life and death differently. It is intense and upsetting. It will be shocking to many. It is absolutely necessary.

The film references the gospel in a number of ways. From the obvious: a scene early in the film has a literature teacher talking about Jesus' crucifixion. To the subtle: the name BenX (which has a cross in it) is a flemish pun meaning "I am nothing". It is a reference to the servant song of Isaiah, "He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not."

Ben embodies the man of sorrows even better than our traditional pictures of Jesus - who is often strong and manly, articulate and persuasive - a powerful, miracle-working, savior. Ben is none of these things. He is awkward and unkempt. He is fragile and unsettling. His sorrow is profound and in his violent end he teaches us that we are violent people, and he shows us a new way. The film offers us a way into the future which is humanizing and life-giving. It is the gospel. It is fantastic.

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