I saw I Am Michael at the Berlinale; a film that to my surprise turned out to be one of the best things that I have seen at the festival. Firstly, a brilliant delivery by James Franco, who plays Michael Glatze in the film, as well as co-star Zachary Quinto, who portrays Michael’s partner/ex-partner. What I found remarkable about this film is that it is not your regular LGBT tale; it’s a story that to one’s surprise rapidly and unexpectedly changes its course. Its tragic-comic elements help remind us that our environment often determines, shapes and reshapes many of our ideas and decisions – willingly yet unwillingly.
The film explores the relationship between Michael, a natural-born leader with a desire to help people, and his physical surroundings. The film is divided into episodes indicative of both place and time. These chapters allow for us, as viewers, to feel the impact of Michael’s shifting values and beliefs.
In San Francisco, Michael identifies as a homosexual. Passionate about gay activism, he encourages youth all over the world – with self-help guides and a blog – to “accept who they truly are” because, to echo his wise words, “what god would punish a person for having found love?”
In a later episode, set in Halifax (Canada), triggered by a random memory of his deceased parents, Michael grows to fear death and the prospect of dying. Michael experiences a myriad of panic attacks and naively takes it as a sign from God. He results to the holy bible in relieving his pain and doubt. His gay activism quickly spirals downwards and we see Michael unexpectedly influenced by the other side of the coin.
At this point the focus is turned towards Michael’s tumultuous battle between the different aspects forming his identity: faith, belief and sexuality. As he attempts to suppress and even eliminate gay desires, like a child would, he escapes reality and creates a new one.
In a new setting, Wyoming, Michael enrolls at bible school and is soon on the path to becoming a Christian pastor. He finally succeeds in doing so and is busy promoting anti-gay values to the rest of the world.
I think that what the film does is paint a poignant portrait of a man, utterly lost and overwhelmed by an extraordinary power to influence and manipulate. In turn, he abuses the authority he has and compromises important relationships along the way. Setting out to embrace his true and best self, Michael recalls his past experiences with men as ‘phases’, a rite of passage, and a distraction that he must desperately overcome – only then can he evolve into a true and dedicated Christian pastor.
One of the film’s strengths is that it does not seek to villainise Michael for his disposition. The contrary; the film attempts to understand and rationalise the roots of Michael’s motives, drawing parallels with a society that is constantly at a loss with regard to what to believe and whom to trust – especially when it comes to its powerful leaders.
The recurring motif of Michael’s mother, who died before him having had the chance to come out to her, is also worth noting. It is perhaps interesting to ask why Justin Kelly focuses so firmly on her lingering presence in the film, while at the same time, revealing so little about her identity and her relationship with Michael.
Justin Kelly (the director) proves to be a master of detail. He weaves visual motifs to recreate the feeling of death and to highlight the tragicomedy of Michael’s circumstances. He constantly reminds his audience of Michael’s vulnerability to the world. Mockingly, Kelly evokes a kind of empathy for Michael’s character even though there is little empathise with.
Numerous close-ups, including a particular one that has remained with me – one of Michael comically wiggling about a protruding toe – ironically reminds us of Michael’s humanity, and we cannot help but feel sentimental. Kelly makes it clear that Michael’s actions bear deep moral consequences; his ever-changing moral compass – constantly influenced by his environment – is certainly not worthy of our envy. The ending is ambiguous and it is as if Kelly deliberately positions Michael back at square one, San Francisco; perhaps it is meant to reflect a kind of ambivalent inner landscape and it leaves the future open to uncertainties – I find that the tone is somewhat hopeful.
Kelly smartly leaves it up to his audience to decide what to feel for Michael’s character but does not fail to establish his own point of view as a director.