Posted in: Film Reviews

Review: The Silent Witness

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

The Silent Witness is a 60-minute British documentary about the controversial Shroud of Turin, which contains a full facial and bodily image of a dead man who may or may not have been Jesus Christ. Producer-director David W. Rolfe figures—and rightly so—that few people will be likely to laugh off the whole subject once they’ve been given only a few of the extraordinary facts. He further assumes that there’s a varied audience for the Shroud, and thus his film: empirical, armchair sindonologists (investigators of the Shroud), 700-Clubbers, and subscribers to the Ancient Astronaut/Bigfoot/Elvis-spoke-to-me-from-the-grave axis. Everybody gets equal time in this movie, which is to say you get 20 minutes addressed to your particular camp. The merely curious will walk away stimulated, at the very least.

Fortunately, the good stuff is very good. Rolfe organizes interviews, test demonstrations, and direct lecturing to the camera in a manner that resembles that breed of in-house, specialized workshop and training one-reelers likely to be seen in driver’s education, hotel management classes, or the Army. As enervating an approach as that may sound, considering the emotional high stakes of the subject matter, it is in fact both structurally appropriate and aesthetically gratifying. Rolfe understands that even the most levelheaded scientist he interviews cannot ignore the astonishing resonance of the possibility (particularly since it’s a very strong possibility) that he holds an image of Christ derived from an objective source, versus hundreds of projections from icon-laden Christian history. And even if it is not Christ, those close to the Shroud unavoidably approach the tormented figure as both icon and physical phenomenon, half pietà and half moonrock. Thus, an objective distance for the camera is in order, keeping the viewer’s own approach cool via vicarious professionalism, but allowing the interviewees’ excitement to speak openly for itself.

Under these conditions there is no particularly graceful or unobtrusive way for Rolfe to cut his film in these didactic sequences and honor that impassive sensibility, so he downplays abstraction by keeping the camera rolling and restricting montage to details and special emphases. Given time, however, the camera hits its stride playing by these rules, and Rolfe reveals himself to be no longer simply recording in an objective posture, but recording obsessively in that posture. At that point, Rolfe’s own sense of awe and his documentary methods become inextricable, as in the case of the investigators. The telling shot occurs in the bowels of the Los Angeles morgue, of all places. Rolfe and his crew have come to film a brief talk by a coroner who spends his spare time analyzing the broken body on the Shroud. They meet in the hall, where countless still-warm, bloodied, definitely dead L.A. residents are strewn on tables against the walls. While filming in the hall is clearly meant to provide an establishing shot, the handheld camera and general grisliness immediately trigger a Wisemanesque vérité frame of reference. Corpses flash in and out of the frame until we get to a little side office where the really important filming will begin. Directing is a process of selection and choice, and at this point the process becomes more real than open perception—perhaps the world itself.

The rest of the film is negligible. For those in a private hell of doubt and frustration, Rolfe pads the important material with periodic shots of some starving actor’s shoulder and back being whipped and forehead being grazed with a crown of thorns. Sadly, one tends to forget the last important point calmly made before the volcanic bursts of meat and blood, and to concentrate on being prepared to shut out this nauseating spectacle whenever it should reappear—hardly a posture in which to be edified. This same penchant for delivering holy fodder also precipitates the film’s most lavish indulgence, a series of Sunday morn television simulations of events known to have occurred in the Shroud’s dark journeys from Jerusalem to France. These are visual aids intent on assisting our puny imaginations in grasping simple historical facts, and they are shrewdly chosen for peak emotional content (weeping nuns, blah blah) and implied verification of what we can’t yet prove is real. But Christian Broadcasting Company call-ins and the Sasquatch Set eat it off sticks, and that’s why it’s here. I’m attracted to The Silent Witness chiefly because it ultimately serves both fact and possibility, refusing to extricate one entirely from the other. Rolfe takes no stand on what an image of Christ otherwise confirms or does not confirm about alleged history, but his particular sin is in toying with other people’s susceptibilities.

© 1980 Tom Keogh

Direction and production: David W. Rolfe.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.