It was just this past February that acclaimed Christian filmmaker Rolf Forsberg passed away at the age of 92, a man far from a household name yet a man who could easily lay claim to being one of the most iconic figures in the early faith-based cinema scene that began for Forsberg in the early 1960's when he was commissioned to write and direct a motion picture for the Protestant and Orthodox Pavilion of the 1964 New York World's Fair. Forsberg's result was Parable, an allegory that imagined the world as a circus redeemed by a Christ-like figure portrayed as a clown. Officials of the fair tried vigorously to ban the film from being shown, but Parable was shown again and again during 1964 and 1965 to appreciative audiences and substantial critical acclaim including a Gold Lion from the Venice International Film Festival, a Hugo from the Chicago International Film Festival, and a citation from Cannes. In 2012, Parable was added to the National Film Registry, which annually honors "Distinguished achievements in filmmaking considered of enduring importance to American culture."
Yet, be honest. You haven't heard of Parable, have you? There's a pretty good chance that you haven't heard of the other three films included in this collection including The Antkeeper, Ark, and One Friday.
That's a pity. Really. While the four Forsberg films included in Parable: Four Films by Rolf Forsberg may not hold up to today's technological advances, they are groundbreaking examples of faith-based cinema long before faith-based cinema was really considered a thing and even before those days when just the phrase "faith-based cinema" made you cringe because you knew that meant badly acted, preachy films with no cross-over potential and no true critical value.
These films? Believe it or not, they're different as evidenced by the massive critical praise that met and continues to meet Parable, the iconic short film that started it all for Forsberg.
In 2014, the Gospel Films Archive was established in an effort to uncover thousands of faith-based 20th century shorts, features and TV shows languishing away in undigitized 16mm format existing in private film archives like Regent University, Wheaton College and Notre Dame. These inspired films were created by pioneer Christian filmmakers like James K. Friedrich, Sam Hersh and Ken Anderson. Working with little funding and with an unknown market potential, the Gospel Films Archive began three years ago to create this film with Forsberg's full cooperation as evidenced by his video intros for each of the four short films included in the collection.
As I was exploring the credits around Parable, it was a telling revelation that the film had zero critic reviews and two user reviews - of the two user reviews, one was for the max score of a "10" and the other for the lowest score of "1." Indeed, that may very well tell you everything you need to know about the artsy, creatively inspired short film that may qualify as one of the earliest examples of an arthouse faith-based film. Throughout his career, Forsberg remained a visionary filmmaker whose films tackled bold subject matter in complex, entertaining and decidedly non-preachy ways. While there's little doubt that Parable is his best known film, and certainly the best known of the four films in this collection, Forsberg made many other shorts throughout his career and attracted involvement from a wide array of folks. Forsberg's films entered the scene during a time when churches were just starting to deal with the impact of mass media on worship and Forsberg, most likely more than a good majority of faith-based and inspired filmmakers, embraced the challenge with a boldness that is still seldom seen.
The Antkeeper features narration by Fred Gwynne (The Munsters), a sure sign that Rolf's acclaim as a filmmaker had attracted a wider base of support. The film also features lensing by renowned Disney's True Life Adventures cinematographer Robert Crandall and explores in a Felliniesque manner the story of mankind as represented by a gardener, his son, the "wicked one" and a world populated by ants. Filmed on a $175,000 budget and released a couple of years after Parable, The Antkeeper is a more socially aware film that, for me, resonated most deeply of the four films in this collection. Of course, that may very well have a lot to do with my own passion for Fellini films.
Ark is essentially a climate change film before climate change was even in the conversation. A deeply moving film, Ark is Forsberg's prophetic vision of environmental and spiritual degradation via one man's desperate attempt to protect a sealed ecosystem from hostile intruders. The film is stark, even jarring, and at times almost feels like it belongs alongside a Mad Max type of film. There's a pervasive bleakness in the film, though to explain it much more would be to ruin the film's impact. Suffice it to say that Ark is a leering, intrusive film that stays with you long after its closing credits.
Finally, there's One Friday, an early 70's faith-based short that tackled civil rights and race riots and actually starred Forsberg's own young son as the toddler in the film. Grounded within 1 Corinthians, and all of Forsberg's films are grounded within Scripture, One Friday is noteworthy for its electrifying ending and for a boldness that even now is rare in faith-based cinema yet still manages to avoid preachiness.
Available on DVD and via digital download, the Parable collection is a must own for fans of Christian cinema and for those who embrace the history of said cinema. One simply must admire the work of the Gospel Films Archive in preserving these films and in their next effort to preserve the entire collection of the Cathedral Films Library.
For more information or to visit Parable, visit the Parable website. For more information on the Gospel Films Archive, visit the Gospel Films Archive website.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic