The Believers (1987)
“One life is all we ask.”
A sprightly Martin Sheen plays psychologist Cal Jamison in this almost forgotten tale of dark power and ruthless ambition. The movie’s more unsettling scenes are fearlessly portrayed by Oscar winning director John Schlesinger, even though they might’ve struggled to make it past the present day’s more politicised censors.
Not for the squeamish or the easily offended, The Believers tells the story of a professional psychologist who finds himself drawn ever deeper into the shadowy, obsessively secretive worlds of Santeria and Palo Mayombe,* its even darker cousin. The themes of group loyalty and unquestioning faith are squarely interrogated by the film’s unflinching portrayal of blood sacrifice, both animal and human.
Almost as though drawn by some invisible force, Jamison finds himself inside a world hidden behind barriers of blood, custom and language, where the forces of light and darkness wage their unceasing war through Santeria’s hybrid system of African, Latin American and Catholic ritual. The result is a deliciously dark and exotic experience, where even the work of the right hand path feels somehow perilous and forbidden.
The Abrahamic theme of sacrifice through devotion are given a compelling and modern makeover as Jamison is forced to the precipice of trading his son’s soul for a future free from pain, unhappiness and doubt. All that is required for this Faustian bargain is a single life, his firstborn.
The archetypal and metaphysical strength of this movie is often lost behind the disguise of a by-the-numbers thriller, but hidden behind that facade is a deeper, more fundamental and far more disturbing narrative flow. Cal Jamison’s fate is sealed early on when he feels compelled to make a pact with the gods of Santeria in order to protect his son. Of course the father will triumph in the final reel, but a bargain is a bargain and the price must be paid. Regla de Ocha will forever cast a shadow across the life of the father, and the lives of his line.
Now sadly consigned to a few dusty VHS tapes and some short footnotes in filmographies, The Believers’ negative reviews by the great and the good have made it certain that those independent thinkers involved in its creation would make a conscious effort to forget it. Although the Eoin Sprott Studio is clearly credited for special effects, the simulated suffering of animals has probably more than played its part in this underrated film’s unusually rapid and almost contrived slide into obscurity.
This is a great shame, because although the movie features some lurid depictions of deals with the divine, the infamous cases of “Adam” and Mark Kilroy should remind us that life and art are often more closely entwined than we care to admit.
Watch the trailer here, and enjoy a movie that may not rank among the greatest ever made, but deserves a lot more respect than it’s hitherto been given.
* – Some practitioners vehemently dispute the negative perception of Palo Mayombe, claiming it is a media construction based on ignorance and misunderstanding. This is a spiritual and moral discussion, and readers must draw their own conclusions.