Last Night's Television - The Genius of Omar Khayyam, BBC4; True Stories: A Long Weekend with the Son of God, More4
Wednesday 31 March 2010
As scoops go, you'd have to admit that George Carey's was a cracker – an exclusive one-to-one interview with Jesus Christ... in Jesus's gracious country home. Sure, there will be envious colleagues out there who may pick the nits out of his weird and engrossing True Stories film,
A Long Weekend with the Son of God. It wasn't really Jesus, they'll carp, just a Siberian ex-traffic cop called Sergei Torop who's come over all messianic and managed to persuade a few thousand other people to go along with his fantasy. Jesus wouldn't drive a quad bike, they'll say. And Jesus would surely have slightly more interesting things to say to us. They're just jealous, I think, kicking themselves that they didn't put in the footwork and schlep out to a place that makes the back of beyond look cosmopolitan – the Minusinsk Basin in Siberia, 200 miles north of Mongolia and 50 years behind the times.
If you want to build a new Jerusalem on Earth there are worse places to do it than Minusinsk, which has a pre-lapsarian beauty to it. And Carey understood from the off that the best way of presenting his material was as a kind of skewed fairy tale. "One bright August day, I found myself waiting at a railway station in Siberia for someone to show me the way," he began – that nice double meaning in the script typical of its understated wit. He began in Minusinsk itself, a battered post-Soviet outpost where Vissarion Christ (the name Torop adopted after the revelation of his godhead) is remembered for some underpowered miracles (walking around barechested at 42 degrees below, persuading a murder suspect to come quietly) and, by his former neighbour, for noise. "He's not Christ," you could imagine her saying, "he's a very naughty boy." Vissarion, or Sergei as he was then, hung around with the UFO enthusiasts and was convinced that he was destined for bigger things.
Carey pressed on into the countryside – to Petropavlovka, a scattering of ornately Slavic wooden houses where the faithful were gathering to celebrate one of their feast days – the anniversary of Vissarion's realisation that he was the messiah. The gospel, as far as you could gather it from Vissarion's rapture-dazed acolytes, is a kind of vegan eco-spirituality, which believes that Earth is a sentient being and that Siberia is her soul. There was a lot of stuff about energy flows and submission of the ego, and then there was Christ himself, slightly portly beneath his pristine robes and wearing an expression of beatific torpor. Carey's first encounter with him must have gone down fairly well, because he was allowed to penetrate further, all the way to the Celestial Abode, perched on a hill above a clearing in the taiga, where the inner circle live. As they approached, Vissarion's John the Baptist, an ex-rock singer called Vadim Redkin, got a call on his mobile, announced by Marilyn Monroe singing "I Wanna Be Loved by You". Christ, it was eventually revealed, has lousy taste in wallpaper and a fondness for hi-fi equipment and flat-screen tellies.
The big question here was whether Vissarion was a harmless kook or a dangerous one. The track record of returned Christs isn't terrifically good, counting among their number David Koresh, Jim Jones and the Reverend Sun Myung Moon. Indeed, you might argue that anyone who calls himself Christ, almost certainly isn't. The next Elvis isn't likely to be called Elvis, after all. There was also a perturbing whiff of the apocalyptic in Vissarion's sermonising, with its talk of accounts being settled and the lateness of the hour. But if Carey had hoped to uncover heretics or cracks in the facade of countercultural bliss, they never turned up. This wasn't an exposé but a study of the odd shapes that human yearning can take, and the specific vulnerabilities of a society in which the values you've grown up with have crumbled away like Soviet asphalt.
The Genius of Omar Khayyam might more accurately have been titled "The Genius of Edward Fitzgerald", Sadeq Saba's film about the great Persian poet and astronomer spending almost as much time on the Victorian poet who brought the Rubaiyats to the West as it did on their original creator. It was an odd affair, but it did two useful things, giving you a glimpse of an Iran that is sophisticated, literate and wise. You could see the genius of the country that persists beneath the idiocy of the theocracy, which disapproves of Khayyam's tolerance and worldly fatalism but recognises it as too deeply engrained to oppose. And it illuminated the strange spark that occurred when dawning Victorian rationalism struck against a text from 800 years earlier that seemed to speak directly to its own fears and desires. In an odd way, there was a kind of link to Carey's film – a society losing one certainty and looking for another. But the scripture was far more memorable in this case.
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