Sundance Review: 'Love Free or Die'
With Bishop Gene Robinson at the forefront, faith and gay rights are on the agenda
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Macky Alston's "Love Free or Die," playing in the US Documentary competition at the Sundance Film Festival, begins as a portrait of Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Anglican Church.
Even if "Love Free or Die" had been content to just remain focused on "the most controversial Christian in the world," it would have had a solid story to tell. Despite facing death threats and opposition within his own church, Robinson is a sensitive, funny and altogether inspirational subject.
The thing that elevates "Love Free or Die" -- which I will eventually type as "Love Free or Die Hard" in this review -- is that in its final act, the documentary leaves Robinson almost entirely and, without belaboring its point, it becomes the story of change, a moving look at how even a rigid church with centuries of entrenched methodology can begin a slow shift towards inclusiveness and equality.
"Love Free or Die" is the latest in one of Sundance's most enduring genres, one represented by dozens of films each year: The preaching-to-the-choir documentary. But by underplaying its undeniably emotional high points and smartly avoiding the demonization of opposition points of view, "Love Free or Die" could plausibly play to audiences outside of the choir.
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Although it's unflinchingly an advocacy film with a progressive ideology, "Love Free or Die Hard" doesn't shy from being a documentary about faith. All of its subjects are seeing the world through the prism of the Anglican/Episcopalian church and their relationships with God and the church are never in doubt.
In that respect, "Love Free or Die Hard" has a conservative streak that should disarm many dissenters. Robinson and his partner (and later, when New Hampshire law allowed, husband) Mark Andrew live as traditional a domestic life as one could imagine. They're introduced as a couple decorating a Christmas tree. Their walls are festooned with pictures of Robinson's two daughters. We see Robinson's flock doting on him, mostly older, white New Hampshire residents, folks this former New Hampshire-ite can confirm aren't the swiftest to welcome change.
The documentary is a study in Robinson's simultaneous inclusion and exclusion. The movie opens at the 2008 Lambeth Conference of Anglican Bishops in England, pretty much the Comic-Con of top-tier Anglican clergy, an event that Robinson has been specifically barred from. Instead of protesting or even professing anger, Robinson goes to England anyway and although he can't march with the stuffy guys in purple robes, he visits Canterbury Cathedral. He tends to AIDS patients at a hospice. He's invited to speak at a London church where the open-minded reverend observes, "They've managed to make something dirty that is fundamentally about something that as Christians we should be celebrating, which is love between two people." But even at that church, Robinson is shouted down from the crowd, called a heretic.
Rather than beginning with a strictly biographical approach, Alston builds his film around notable vignettes, including the Lambeth experience, Robinson's key role in President Obama's inauguration, Robinson's wedding and, most powerfully, a speech at a New York City Presbyterian church on Gay Pride day. The movie builds to the 2009 General Convention in Anaheim, a true referendum on the Episcopal Church and its willingness to accept gay marriage and gay clergy.
Alston allows for oppositional views. Several of the bishops who are opposed to Robinson and his equality crusade are given camera-time. Alston obviously chose not to showcase the most virulent and rigid of the adversaries, which somewhat decreases the apparent passion of the opposition, but also keeps that side human and absent of caricature. There's some hate speech from several protestors, but Alston keeps those as extremes, rather than as representative of Christian values. Rowan Williams, head of the Anglican Church, isn't shown in a positive light, but he's only featured at press conferences and in news footage.
By the time we arrive at the General Convention, Alston is no longer merely looking at Robinson. He's looking at Bishop Tom Shaw, gay, but a celibate monk. He's looking at Rev. Dr. Eleanor McLaughlin, who laments that while she has always remained true to the Church, the Church hasn't always remained true to her. He's looking at Bishop Otis Charles, who had to retire before finding happiness and marriage with a man. He's looking at Barbara Harris, the church's first female bishop and a tremendous character probably worthy of a documentary all her own.
The deck is stacked in Robinson and his cause's favor, but Alston is careful not to push too hard. "Love Free or Die" is voiceover-free and titles are only used for context rather than didacticism. The documentary's most emotional moments are accompanied by a spare piano-driven score and almost never feel forced. A rare exploitative moment comes early-on when Robinson is on the verge of tears after the "heretic" incident and the camera pushes in on his face, jarringly, but Alston mostly lets the subjects and the events stand on their own.
The film begins with Robinson as a solo focus, but by the end, when Bishop Shaw declares, "It's not Gene out there doing this on his own. It's like a tidal wave," Alston has made that case. "Love Free or Die" is a gentle film about a gentle man -- Sundance is never short on dogmatic and aggressive position films, so "gentle" is almost a welcome relief -- but its closing call-to-action isn't in doubt.