Firstly, just wanted to apologise for neglecting this newsletter in the past few weeks. The air-date for the show I’m working on at the moment is about a fortnight out, and after that I’ll either use that downtime to write more for this or have a full blown mental breakdown in the absence of structure and routine. Either way, it’s all content.
Secondly, this newsletter contains a piece I wrote a few years ago about a Christ-themed amusement park I visited in Argentina. I really like this piece, but after writing it, production started up on something or other and I just put it in a drawer and forgot all about it - until this week when I saw a photo of my visit to Tierra Santa on Facebook and thought the piece could have a sort of life here. So I took it out and gave it an edit and here it is.
Hope you’re all doing well,
We’re running late to the creation of the universe. A Roman centurion ushers us into a stucco cave and we’re told to find a seat. The cave is pitch black but for the illumination of a blinking LED, signifying - we will later learn - that the smoke machine at the creation of the universe is on stand-by. There are probably 50 others present at the dawn of man - which, for the record, smells intoxicatingly, if inexplicably, of vanilla – and we few wait in silence until a rich and strong and benevolent voice booms at us out of the darkness. It commands us to turn off our mobile phones and then a few seconds later the universe is born.
“YOU ARRIVE WITH THE HOPE OF LIVING A DAY FULLY AND YOU LEAVE FULL OF HOPE” is the powerfully cryptic sentence printed on the bottom of the English-language visitors booklet for Tierra Santa – the world’s first religious amusement park. ‘Amusement park’ here might be misleading, as it calls to mind more plush mascots and rides and vomiting children than you will find at Tierra Santa. You will find none of the first two at Tierra Santa, and no more of the third than the average found in any given area.
The park that promises – aggressively - to leave you full of hope sprawls over seven acres of Buenos Aires and is a celebration of the life, works, teachings and times of Jesus Christ. It is described on its website as ‘A place where past and present magically come together’ and by the Lonely Planet as ‘a very tacky place’.
Neither of these descriptions come close to properly describing Tierra Santa, but both are accurate in their own way. Consider that the park is a place of very sincere worship and reverence, but it is also a place where an 18 metre tall animatronic Jesus Christ emerges from a plastic mountain every hour. These two things – sober veneration and gigantic Christ robot – are not mutually exclusive.
And so, as befits a tribute to Jesus Christ, the park is divisive and complicated. There is a tension brought about by the effort to make the sacred spectacular – a transition that is more often than not entirely fraught.
The majority of the park’s seven acres is given over to a recreation of ancient Jerusalem, rendered in stucco and plaster and containing more pizzerias than are, in all probability, historically accurate. Lining these streets and occupying the dozens of painted buildings are hundreds of fibreglass mannequins – the Tierra Santa equivalent of be-suited actors wandering around dressed as Mickey Mouse.
There are beggar children, shopkeepers, centurions, all living a life in stasis in Ancient Jerusalem. A Falstaffian drunk is frozen in his tumble from his tavern bench while a lifeless serving girl looks on in perpetuity; family of bakers is forever in the midst of pulling bread from a stone oven; a lady of the night flirts with a potential John for all of eternity.
(The mannequins are just life-like enough that you find yourself spending a lot of time during your stay at Tierra Santa apologising to fiberglass. Adding to the confusion is the fact that all the park's staff - from cleaners to tour guides - are dressed in period costumes identical to that of the statues. So in addition to apologising to fibreglass, you also spend a large chunk of time having things you assumed to be inanimate suddenly (and accidentally) scare the shit out of you. In this way, walking around Tierra Santa is not unlike riding a ghost train.)
In amongst the mundane scenes of domesticity are some 35 tableaux depicting significant events in the life and death of Jesus Christ. Next to the family of bakers, fibreglass Jesus is healing the sick; while a fibreglass woman washes her clothes in the well, she is oblivious to the wrath of fibreglass Jesus casting money lenders from the temple just feet away; even as fibreglass Pontius Pilate frees fibreglass Barabbas, sealing fibreglass Jesus’ fate - still-life goes on in ancient Jerusalem.
The transition works less well in the animatronic dioramas. These are the closest things to ‘rides’ at Tierra Santa. The nearest Disney analog is the ‘It’s a Small World’ attraction, but without the boat or singing or the movement and everything’s from the bible.
There are three in total: In chronological order they are The Creation, The Nativity, and The Last Supper. In order of least biblical robots to most biblical robots they are The Nativity, The Creation and The Last Supper.
The Creation – the one in the vanilla-scented cave – takes place over about eight minutes and has more lasers than any reasonable person would expect. Smoke rises out of the darkness and hundreds of green beams shoot out at the audience while Genesis is narrated by whoever the South American equivalent of Morgan Freeman is. The overall impression is one of a theological rave. Fairy lights illuminate the ceiling and a sun is projected onto the back of the grotto.
Next come the animals. The first to emerge - sliding out on its tracks from behind a plastic bush with a slowness that suggests a certain reluctance to be brought into being - is a lion. It roars and turns its head from side to side. A rabbit, perhaps aware of the lion’s limited range of motion, squats next to the giant cat. An elephant, a hippo, a gorilla and a giraffe all materialise over the space of the next five minutes. The giraffe chews on a leaf and turns its head toward the audience. It looks pretty disappointed in everyone. Once the animals are created, the lights go dark once more and the lasers return. Then Carmina Burana blares. The moment for the creation of man has arrived.
Adam and Eve do not rise from the floor. Instead, the two figures, both fig-leafed for modesty, swivel up from the ground on a 45 degree angle, like two hands on a clock turning in opposite directions toward 12. It is unclear if this is an artistic choice or one borne out of a lack of space below the cave, but either way the effect is profoundly and wonderfully silly. The music swells and the figures turn their backs and point their arms skyward. The lights come on and the Roman centurion tells us it’s time to go.
The Creation is the most unremittingly fantastical display in the park. In this case, the spectacular and sacred are one in the same. It is, after all, difficult to over-egg the birth of the universe.
Not so with The Nativity.
The visitors program boasts this to be ‘the biggest animated nativity in the world’, and if there are any pretenders to that title, it can be assumed that none have come forward. The display seats 400, and on the day we visit it, 300 of those seats are taken up by excited school children.
The desired mood for the display, it can be safely assumed, is other-worldly. There is, however, a very fine like between ethereal and spooky - and this is a line that the designers have accidentally crossed. The manger and surrounding fields are dimly lit and shrouded in a thick fog, giving not the impression of subdued awe but the sense that the Thriller film clip is about to start.
All the key players are accounted for. The shepherds jerkily tend to their sheep, Mary kneels in front of a feed trough, which we can assume contains the baby Jesus (although if we had any doubt on that score, the trough glows like the briefcase in Pulp Fiction). Standing behind Mary is Joseph who looks, even from a distance, slightly put out. His animatronic motions are limited to gingerly placing a hand on Mary’s shoulder, which is, under the circumstances, entirely understandable.
The wise men arrive with their gifts – one of them (Melchior?) wearing an expression you typically associate with someone who’s just remembered they left the stove on. They kneel in deference and offer their tributes. Neither Mary or Joseph make a move to take them and so the wise men continue to kneel in what would be, if not for the fact that all concerned were robots – an excruciatingly awkward exchange.
As with The Creation, the display ends with a swelling orchestral score followed immediately by someone in a costume politely but firmly asking you to leave. As we do so, the display resets itself. Cherubs ascend back into the heavens, Joseph takes his hands from Mary’s shoulder, and the wise men stand and retract their offerings.
The Last Supper mirrors the composition of Da Vinci’s famous fresco.
Eat of this bread, for it is my body - Christ implores his disciples in deep, benevolent Spanish - but the disciples could not eat of the body of Christ, for they were robots. A similar difficulty is encountered with the wine. The disciple's range of movement is confined to the swivelling of their heads. Only The Christ can move his hands, which he does with seemingly indiscriminate gusto.
Sitting in the dark watching Christ accuse Judas - whose head then swivels away from The Lord in an approximation of shame, while eleven other heads swivel toward Iscariot in an approximation of judgement - you feel that tension return. On the one hand, you instinctively want to afford this display a degree of respect, on the other, there is only so much respect you can realistically afford an animatronic Jesus Christ.
And this is the problem with Tierra Santa. Put simply – with all the goodwill in the world, there are still things that cannot be represented by fibreglass or robots without losing something essential in the translation. The majority of the events of the New Testament are some of these things.
Having been tardy to The Creation, we decide to get to The Resurrection with time to spare.
There are, of course, plenty of towering statues of Christ all over South America, but none can boast the ’36 mechanical parts, music and special effects’ of Tierra Santa’s Jesus. Interestingly, nowhere in the promotional material does the park boast that this is the most moving parts for an animatronic Jesus in the world or even the Southern Hemisphere. Given how taken to boasting the program is, this suggests that somewhere out there is a far more dexterous robotic Jesus - a thought that should give us all pause.
We can’t ponder this for long because at the appointed time, Handel’s Messiah starts up. The audience falls silent, all eyes turn toward the plastic mountain out of which the gigantic Christ automaton is to emerge. The choir continues while the tension builds – then as the Hallelujah chorus blares, the top half of Christ’s face peeps out from the mountain, then stops, then slowly lowers back down. The lasting effect is one of a bashful Lamb of God. The music halts and a voice comes over the PA apologising for the technical malfunction and assures us that Christ will rise in five to ten minutes.
It’s hard to know if this is a mistake or a decision in keeping with the scripture. Matthew 24:44 warns us ‘So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him’