Don Verdean (2015)
Apparently I am into films about faith-based charlatans. Unlike Elmer Gantry, however, Don Verdean is a comedy about what it means to believe, even in the face of such difficult things like “evidence” and “historical fact.” Don Verdean focuses on the attempts of a “Biblical archaeologist” to pass off artifacts discovered in Israel as proofs of the reality of the Bible. The bizarre thing about it? He really believes in what he’s selling.
Don Verdean (Sam Rockwell) makes a questionable living as a self-titled Biblical archaeologist, traveling to Israel and unearthing artifacts based on a combination of Bible verses, historical knowledge, and his professed belief in God’s guidance. He meets with pastor Tony Lazarus (Danny McBride), who wants Don’s help in bringing more people into his rapidly diminishing congregation. Don has the solution: he’s discovered Lot’s Wife on a cliff in the Holy Land, and has the statue shipped over from Israel with the help of his friend and local guide Boaz (Jemaine Clement). But Lazarus isn’t satisfied with just one piece of Biblical history, and Don promises to find an even more astounding artifact: the skull of Goliath. So off Don goes, with his faithful secretary Carol (Amy Ryan), to try and discover the last resting place of David’s nemesis. When it becomes clear that the Israeli government will not let Don dig where he wants to, the desperate archaeologist does something he’s never done before: he fakes it, digging up the grave of a boxer afflicted with gigantism to pass off as Goliath’s skull. But Boaz knows what he did, and Don is now in way over his head.
Don Verdean could have been a lot of things: a satire on the faithful, a parody of people stupid-or desperate-enough to believe in the reality of the Bible that they can be sucked in by obvious fakes and questionable historical practices. But while the film is certainly satirical, it does not fall into the trap of feeling contempt for those it satirizes. Don is a true believer – he really does think that he can find artifacts by using the Bible and that he’s receiving guidance from God. The Goliath skull scam is not for money, but a desperate move to help people maintain their faith by giving them something tangible to hold onto. As Boaz sucks him deeper into the vortex, trying to convince him to make money by scamming people, Don becomes legitimately distressed. This is not what he does, and not the meaning of his work.
Unfortunately Don Verdean sacrifices some of its thoughtfulness in the second half, relying instead on some cheap shots to draw out the humor of the situation. Initially an interesting character, Boaz falls quickly into the stereotype of the money-hungry Jew – that’s bad enough, even if you don’t add in the depiction of a Chinese businessman whose accent is hard to understand. The stereotyping rather takes away from Don Verdean‘s otherwise unique take on faith and charlatanism – while all the characters are stereotyped to a degree, the other shoe never really drops with Boaz, who becomes just a problematic stereotype rather than a well-rounded character. Other jokes, including a former Satanist turned evangelical pastor played by Will Forte, never fully come to fruition, their potential abandoned for a rather rote heist narrative at the end.
Yet there is still so much to like about Don Verdean. The film is surprisingly thoughtful when it comes to the nature of faith – does it matter if the salt pillar is just a salt pillar, or the skull is just a skull? If you believe it to be Lot’s Wife, or the skull of Goliath, if it makes a difference in your life and in your faith, then what does it matter if it’s historically verifiable or not? Don’s secretary Carol becomes the central pillar around which this film is built – her faith encouraged by Don’s questionable findings, her life made more meaningful by being with him. It doesn’t much matter whether the findings are true or not – their truth is in belief, and belief is sometimes all we have.