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Director by Francis Lawrence
Warner Brothers
121 minutes (R rating)
Commentary by Kevin Miller

Perhaps I was reading too much into the symbolic language of this film, but when the opening shot featured two squatters scrabbling around in the dusty ruins of a Mexican church, I had a feeling institutional Christianity was in for a rough ride. That feeling intensified when one of the squatters broke through the church’s rotting floor and discovered a religious relic wrapped in a Nazi flag, no less. And instead of bringing about healing or redemption, this relic—the so-called “Spear of Destiny” used to pierce Jesus’ side following his crucifixion—brought only death and destruction. In less than 60 seconds, the filmmakers had depicted the church as irrelevant, fascist, superstitious, and lethal. Where were they going to go from here?

As the film progressed, however, I was surprised to discover that Constantine wasn’t as interested in attacking the church as it was in appropriating various aspects of Christian theology and mythology for its own purposes. Using a mixture of Catholic and Protestant tradition as raw material, the filmmakers created their own rather fascinating cosmology, one that posits—not unlike the book of Job—that God and Satan have made a wager with no less than the souls of humankind hanging in the balance. The rules? No interference allowed, just influence. The cosmic super being with the most souls in the end wins. Thrown into the mix is a race of half-breeds—half-human/half-angel or demon. These are the “influence peddlers,” as John Constantine calls them. With full-blooded demons and angels restricted to their respectively hellish and heavenly realms, the half-breeds are the only non-human participants in this celestial game.

Every so often, one of these half-breeds breaks the rules, moving from influence to interference. When this happens, Constantine steps in and “deports” them back to hell. To do so, he employs a combination of pagan and Catholic artifacts and rituals, a fact that is sure to incite those who hold allegiance to the Vatican. How did John Constantine—a mere human—inherit such a role? Since he was a child, the spiritual beings that haunt this world were plainly visible to him, and he to them. Eventually, this “gift” of seeing became so overwhelming that Constantine tried to commit suicide as a way of escape. But rather than offer an escape from hell, his actions delivered him to that place of fire and brimstone instead—in strict accordance to Catholicism’s rules about such matters. Two minutes later, his soul was yanked back to the land of the living. But for Constantine, it felt like he had been gone for an eternity.

Forever altered by his sojourn into hell but knowing he was doomed to return as a consequence for his sin, Constantine has dedicated his life to deporting as many demons as possible in the hope that eventually God will relent and grant him admission to heaven. The point that Constantine keeps overlooking though—as a half-breed angel named Gabriel reminds him—is that right actions aren’t an admission ticket into God’s graces. Being on God’s side is more about faith and denial of self in favor of focusing steadfastly on the divine.

Even before his stint in hell, faith was not something with which John Constantine struggled. Who needs faith when the things hoped for, the things unseen—and the things most feared—are all around you (cf. Hebrews 11:1)? It’s devoting himself to following God that poses the real problem to Constantine, but not because he is inherently self-centered. He just doesn’t see the point of it. And who can blame him? With a God who merely toys with the beings he has created, why would anyone put discipleship above self-preservation, trust before watching out for number one? God’s apparent indifference to the affairs of Men puts him not only in the same league as the devil but also on the same team. Such a God could not be anything but evil. But not all hope is lost for Constantine. Despite appearances to the contrary, eventually even he comes to believe that God might have a plan for his life after all, one that doesn’t involve relegating him to eternal damnation.

No doubt, many Christians will be upset that this film takes such license with orthodox theology. This might be a valid criticism if Constantine actually tried to portray its version of the spiritual world as true—the same way author Dan Brown tried to portray The Da Vinci Code’s version of church history as correct. However, the people behind this film make no bones about the fact that they are constructing a fantasy, period.
Despite its deistic, dualistic portrayal of good and evil and its crass reduction of the church to an inconsequential, fascist, spiritually bankrupt institution, Constantine does contain some fodder for serious contemplation. Few Christian films have done a better job of depicting the difference between works and grace. And few mainstream films offer such a strong affirmation of the spiritual dimension of life, showing it to be every bit as real and consequential as the physical. Constantine also addresses a number of spiritual questions that seem particularly pressing at this point in time, questions like “Is God good?” “Does he have a plan for me?” “Is he out to get me?” “Is he even there?” and “What must I do to be saved?”

No one would expect a supernatural thrill ride like this film to provide all the answers. But the fact that it even attempts to grapple with such issues sets it apart from films that seek merely to entertain and puts it among those that border on being truly significant.

Copyright @ 2005 Kevin Miller


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