At the beginning of writer/director Miguel Llansó’s Jesus Shows You The Way To The Highway, the title is presented as the colourful title screen for an Eighties computer game, complete with garishly coloured 8-bit graphics displaying the film’s main characters, all to the accompaniment of old-school electronic squelches on the soundtrack. It is an apt introduction to a film that comes with a decidedly retro-trash aesthetic, and that feels like a lo-res multi-player adventure.
Protagonist D.T Gagano is a conflicted character. On the one hand, he is a CIA agent with a strong sense of duty, who together with his partner Palmer Eldritch (Agustín Mateo), dons virtual reality headgear to enter the Internet (here called the ‘Psychobook’) in pursuit of hostile computer viruses. Yet he is also a hunchbacked dwarf, afflicted with spinal pain, devoted to his kick-boxing wife Malin (Gerda-Annette Allikas), and obsessed with making and eating quality pizza.
Played by Ethiopian actor Daniel Tadesse (who also starred in Llansó’s 2015 feature debut, the Afro-futurist odyssey/oddity Crumbs), Gagano has made his mind up to quit the CIA and concentrate on his domestic life – but as he works on his ‘one last job’ trying to stop a Russian virus known as ‘Stalin’ (and personified as a man in a cardboard Stalin mask), he becomes stuck in the virtual world and separated – perhaps forever – from his hooked-up body. What follows is an adventure that will take him – or at least a copy of a copy of him – from Europe to Ethiopia, where he will get caught up in local and global power plays, drug deals and double-crosses, coups and colonialism, all while desperately trying to find a way back to Malin and his previous existence.
Yet as all the actors here deliver hilariously stilted performances as if in badly dubbed Reagan-era direct-to-video schlock, as all the ‘futuristic’ tech on offer seems preposterously outmoded, and as Gagano’s journey brings him into bizarrely generic scenarios – including run-ins with a caped crusader, fights with kung fu masters, cheap VHS-era porn, a violent quest for an ‘Ark of the Covenant’, improbable James Bond-like cross-country action and an encounter with a salvation-bringing Jesus, everything in Jesus Shows You The Way To The Highway comes dressed in a stylised artifice, so that any anchoring reality seems always just out of reach. For as Gagano passes through these events in search of something real, masks are lifted and layers of disguise are constantly peeled away, only to reveal yet more masks and more disguises. Batman is just African playboy despot ‘Batfro’ (played variously by Solomon Tashe and Mateo), giant laser-firing flies are revealed to be men in costumes, and Jesus turns out to be just a dude named Roy Mascarone (Guillermo Llansó, who also plays Stalin and various other characters) on a wild trip down a lost highway parallel to Gagano’s.
In this way, Llansó uses the sort of unstable virtual reality found in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s World On A Wire (1973), the Wachowskis’ The Matrix (1999), Mamoru Ishii’s Avalon (2001) and Ari Folman’s The Congress (2013) to frame a pre-millennial, postmodern world whose reference points are the pop cultural detritus of the past, making truth both relative and elusive. By the end of these delirious escapades, the question of Gagano’s actual identity and status receives only equivocal responses, as it remains uncertain whether he is an avatar in a game, an agent in a coma, a drug user under the influence, or a pizza chef who has volunteered for an MIT experiment in exchange for cash. Even the leap of faith promised by the title Jesus Shows You The Way To The Highway is subverted by a suggestion that ultimately Jesus may just be an ordinary, laidback guy with a better sense of direction than Gagano.
Even if diminutive Gagano’s world is a playground where age, identity and sexuality are fluid, and where everything is shabbily second-hand and second-rate, it is also our inheritance, ensuring that Llansó’s quest narrative becomes a satirical search not just for who Gagano was (or may have been), but for who we are too in our own fragmented, atomised, digital lives half-lived online today. For are we not all subject to forces largely beyond our control – ideological, cultural, geopolitical, viral and pharmaceutical – which make us constantly risk losing our grip on ourselves?
Any way you cut it, Jesus Shows You The Way To The Highway is several slices of satisfyingly weird goodness, with a knowing belatedness and an unhinged absurdity amongst its eclectically sourced range of toppings.
© Anton Bitel