• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


    Wednesday, March 11, 2009

    Review: Oversold

    On the surface Paul Morrell and Dave Cowan's Oversold is seemingly an unlikely sounding tale of a Pastor who travels to Vegas, falls in love with a stripper (though he's unaware of her profession at the time), and seeks to free her from the situation in which she is ensnared. But, it's deeper than that, Oversold is a multi-layered film which is not only a modernisation of the story of the Old Testament prophet Hosea, but also of Jesus's redemption of us.

    At the centre of the story is Joshua, a young pastor travelling to Vegas to reconnect with his step-brother Ethan, and Sophi, who works in one of Ethan's clubs. Unaware of their connection, the two meet by chance, and, quickly fall in love.

    A popular plot device in many romantic films is that of 'the hidden secret' such as Gregory Peck's undercover reporter in Roman Holiday, Richard Curtis in Some Like it Hot, or any one of the portrayals of Mr Rochester from Jane Eyre. Essentially it's a reflection of the way we all hide aspects of ourselves when we first meet people and struggle to free ourselves from the lies we projected to protect our inner vulnerability.Inevitably, Josh finds out and is deeply hurt, but as he prays about the situation he hears the voice he recognises as God's tell him to marry Sophi. It's here that the story blossoms into a modern parallel of the story of Hosea - the prophet who is told to marry Gomer, a prostitute. Of course we don't know the background between Hosea and Gomer, and she is, of course, a (temple?) prostitute rather than a stripper, but the similarities are certainly close enough for the film to make us look at the story in a new way. Apart from anything, it's interesting that a script written by a church leader concludes with the Hosea character (and his new wife) failing to find acceptance in his church and having to resign.

    Like Gomer, Sophi returns to her dubious profession even after she has married Josh. Ethan, not only unmoved but angered by her redemption is threatening both her and Josh. The use of threats to explain, and in a sense justify, Sophi's actions makes for an interesting re-reading of the book of Hosea. Gomer, is usually viewed far less sympathetically, in part because she represents "unfaithful" Israel. But Israel, and perhaps even Gomer, also faced threats which may have gone some way to explaining their supposed apostasy.In the end both Joshua and Hosea buy back (or redeem) their wives, and yet again the parallels with Jesus come to the fore. The three names are all derived from the same root, meaning "salvation", and the film becomes more and more of a parallel of Jesus's act of redemption. This is, in fact, exactly what Cowan promises us at the start of the film, in one of several narratorial appearances in the film, but it's also a theme that has been woven into the story throughout the film. The movie opens during one of Josh's sermons. He's talking about the calling of Matthew from Matt 9:9-13. It's a clever starting point as it not only tells the story of a sinner catapulted into a new life by Jesus's love and grace, but it also quotes from the very book that the rest of the film is recontextualising - "I desire mercy, not sacrifice" (Hosea 6:6).

    Perhaps the biggest indicator of this is not the film's portrayal of Joshua, but the character of Ethan. Ethan is without parallel in the book of Hosea. Whilst there are mentions of Gomer's lovers there is none of them who stands out as being responsible for her original situation, or her subsequent return.In fact, Ethan represents Satan in Jesus's quest for humanity's salvation. In a richly significant moment we see him dressed in red looking out across the city and reassuring himself that he "own(s) the town". It's not true of course - Ethan only owns a few clubs. But it evokes Satan during Jesus's temptation, taking him high above the city and making the similarly ludicrous claim that the kingdoms of this world were his to give away. The shot itself is reminiscent of a similar scene in Jesus of Montreal where a slimy lawyer offers that film's Jesus character the chance for fame. It's also interesting that the first time we see Ethan he is wearing a shirt with a cross sewn onto the back. It is, of course, a fake cross with no concept of grace, thus it's hardly surprising that Ethan forces Sophi to come back to work for him to pay off her supposed debt to him.

    The film is surprisingly rich in this kind of symbolism. In a later scene Sophi cuts herself ending up with blood on her hands. Is this representing her being washed in Jesus's blood, or that fact that, like humanity in general his blood is on our hands. Indeed the film's visuals do much to convey its meaning on their own, which always suggests a strong grasp of the medium of film. The film's dialogue is also interesting. In places it's a little clunky, but, on reflection, this is most noticeable at the points in the story when this is, perhaps, what we'd expect in real life. Most courtships are a little clunky. I love the sharp, witty banter of Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep, but for most of us the reality is different. We awkwardly stammer out a few words desperately hoping they will impress, rather than repel, the object of our affections. It's not Hollywood, but I can live with that.

    What I did find surprising about the script, though, are screenwriter Dave Cowan occasional appearances to narrate, and comment on proceedings. Cowan is the pastor of a church of about 100 people based in Phoenix. The film has come about from his vision, and he deserves credit for producing such an impressive piece of work with such limited resources. Being able to draft in his MTV award winning friend Paul Morrell to direct is no doubt helpful but, even so, it's a real achievement. Cowan's intrusions onto the screen are a little unusual, and perhaps betray a lack of confidence in the rest of the production. But then perhaps itjust comes down to a question of genre /medium: is Oversold a dramatic short film or simply a beautifully shot sermon in the style of Rob Bell's Nooma series? Personally I would encourage Cowan and Morrell to pursue the former and leave expounding the meaning of their filmic text to the extra features on the DVD (or for when they show it in a church context). Whilst their work can and will improve, it's already good enough, and strong enough to speak for itself.

    But the thing that impacted me most about the film was the way the role of Sophi was played by Crissy Moran, herself a former porn star. Moran herself admits that her former work in front of the camera required very little acting, and the same could almost be said here, because Oversold is, in fact, her story, a retelling of her discovery of God's love. There's a vulnerability and a subtle brokenness to her performance as if playing this role is still a little painful. But, the true story of redemption that underlies her appearance in this film is so moving it permeates Oversold, like light through a stain glassed window. And it's made all the more powerful by the knowledge that, in contrast to their movie counterparts, the church community behind Oversold did indeed welcome Moran so wonderfully demonstrating that freedom from our pasts isn't just something found in the movies.

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