Thursday, November 7, 2013

Sound of My Voice is Agonizingly Agnostic

The 2011 independent thriller Sound of My Voice has the dubious honor of being one of the most engaging and frustrating films I've ever seen. It begins with twentysomething protagonists Peter and Lorna pulling into the garage of an anonymous residence in suburban Los Angeles. A man enters, takes all of their personal belongings, and commands them to thoroughly bathe and change into the clothing provided for them. Then he blindfolds them, places them in a van, and takes them to the basement of another house. See, Peter and Lorna have just taken their first steps to joining a cult led by an ailing charismatic figure named Maggie. Maggie claims to have journeyed to modern-day L.A. from the year 2054. Her goal? Spread the good news of how to survive a coming apocalypse. Not that Peter and Lorna believe a word of her gospel. They're guerrilla filmmakers with a yen for dismantling charlatans through documentary footage. But as they sink deeper and deeper into the cult, they find it increasingly difficult to distinguish between reality and revisionism.

Director Zal Batmanglij has made a movie primarily about two things, the first of which is the dangerous nature of persuasion. He excels at showing how Maggie and her lieutenant Klaus strip needy suburbanites down to their emotional cores until they're willing to believe anything about -- and do anything for -- her. The meetings start innocently enough. Initiates must scrub themselves beforehand because Maggie's time travel has supposedly weakened her immune system. To protect against outsiders, they have to learn a complicated secret handshake that looks like something a young John Nash might've come up with during recess. They meditate at length to prepare themselves for Maggie's lectures. But while the fabric of her teachings seems light and airy, it has a dark lining. Soon she has manipulated her followers into donating blood to promote her health, vomiting en masse in a symbolic circle of purging, and eating worms to prepare for the diet of the future. Everyone finds it easy to ignore that this woman supposedly stricken by an immune disorder has a smoking habit and that she can't recall any concrete details about the years to come. Peter goes along with all of it until Maggie asks him for a personal favor: She wants him to steal a child.

From that point on, Sound of My Voice slides straight downward, because Batmanglij starts hammering on his second theme -- our inability to determine what's real. Prima face, Maggie seems like a straight-up fraud and continues to on a second and third viewing. But she finds a chink in Peter's mental armor by probing his childhood experiences during an intense group session, and the film's final moments seem to suggest there might be some truth to her outlandish claims. "Seem" is the operative word. When asked just who Maggie is in the end, Peter answers, "I don't know." No wonder he dons gray clothing when everyone else wears white. His indecision appears to mirror Batmanglij's perspective. "I think the right answer is that if it's Peter's story, you have to follow Peter's journey," he says. "And for Peter, I think there's a change. There's an excavation of who he really is. For the audience, I don't think they get any such luxury." The statement reminds me of what Swiss theologian Karl Barth said when asked by a layman whether or not the serpent in Genesis actually spoke. Barth's response: "What did the snake say?" In other words, an event's effect matters more than its factuality. Such agnosticism might lead to fun philosophizing, but with stories it makes for agonizing endings.

(Picture: CC 2010 by KayVee.INC)

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