Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Brother John (1971)

          Because Sidney Poitier had been playing saintly characters since the 1950s, it was only a matter of time before he portrayed an actual messiah, as he does in the compelling allegorical drama Brother John. Imaginatively written by veteran TV scribe Ernest Kinoy, the movie takes place in the small Alabama town to which long-gone native son John Kane (Poitier) returns on the occasion of his sister’s funeral. The town is mired in racially charged turmoil, so John’s appearance raises eyebrows among conservative whites like Lloyd Thomas (Bradford Dillman), who suspect John of being an outside agitator. Lloyd pressures the local sheriff (Ramon Bieri) to investigate John, which reveals the mystery man has traveled all around the world; this leads to allegations that John is some sort of communist operative.
          The whites’ paranoia is exacerbated when John starts keeping company with a local woman (Louisa MacGill), because if he’s just home for the funeral, they ask, why is he setting down roots? Adding another layer of intrigue, John reveals lethal martial-arts skills when assaulted by local thugs and, later, a redneck cop; though he doesn’t kill anyone, he makes it clear that doing so is well within his bare-handed power.
          Yet not everyone sees John as a threat. Lloyd’s freethinking father, small-town physician Doc Thomas (Will Geer), is nearing the end of his life and feeling spiritual, so he starts to wonder if John is part of a larger design. Eventually, Doc becomes convinced that John is a harbinger come to test the mettle of mortal man—and that man is failing the test miserably. The most riveting scenes of this unusual picture are one-on-one exchanges in which Doc asks for perspective from the celestial realm and John cagily avoids verifying whether Doc has guessed his true identity.
          As directed by workmanlike helmer James Goldstone, Brother John has sensitivity but lacks the visual poetry the material demands, and the story takes a while to get cooking. Furthermore, some viewers will find the cryptic ending highly unsatisfying. However, the concept is alluring and the acting is great. Poitier is effectively restrained, yet he ensures that the soul-deep disappointment behind his eyes is plainly visible. As for Geer, he brings the same avuncular sensitivity that later distinguished his work on the long-running TV show The Waltons. So, even though it’s far from perfect, Brother John presents such an unusual story with such care in front of and behind the camera that its best passages are hypnotic.

Brother John: GROOVY

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