At the heart of Oren Jacoby’s screen adaptation of James Carroll’s book “Constantine’s Sword” lies a question to which each person of faith must his find own answer. When your core beliefs conflict with church doctrine, how far should your loyalty to the church extend? The same could be asked of loyalty to a government or a political party.
Mr. Carroll, a former Roman Catholic priest and an acclaimed author whose memoir, “An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War That Came Between Us” won a 1996 National Book Award, vehemently disagrees with the church on many issues but still embraces Catholicism. A former anti-Vietnam War activist, now in his mid-60s, he is an eloquent screen presence who conveys the same searching moral gravity that characterized other Catholic war resisters during the Vietnam era.
At once enthralling and troubling, the film, whose title has been simplified from the book’s “Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews: A History,” does about as good a job as you could hope of distilling a 750-page historical examination of religious zealotry and power into 95 swift minutes. Because the book was published several months before 9/11, the film adaptation, which was written by Mr. Jacoby and Mr. Carroll and uses the voices of Liev Schreiber, Philip Bosco, Natasha Richardson and Eli Wallach, updates the book’s pessimistic vision of how religions demonize one another to include Christian and Islamic fundamentalism as well as anti-Semitism.
What must Middle Eastern Muslims feel, Mr. Carroll wonders, when George W. Bush throws around concepts like good and evil and uses the word crusade to describe the Iraq war? Mr. Carroll worries that we may be heading toward an all-out holy war between state-supported religious extremists.
The movie begins in Colorado Springs where Mikey Weinstein, an alumnus of the United States Air Force Academy, describes the harassment of his son, Casey, a Jewish cadet, by evangelical Christians who over several days blanketed the student cafeteria with fliers promoting the Mel Gibson film “The Passion of the Christ.” There is no doubt in his mind that the film promoted an inflammatory view of Jews as Christ killers. He sued the Air Force, but the case never made it to trial.
Aggressively arguing the evangelicals’ right to proselytize is Ted Haggard, the former pastor of the New Life Church in Colorado Springs, who was filmed for this movie before his fall from grace in a scandal involving a former male prostitute. Fiery-eyed and grinning maniacally, Mr. Haggard suggests a Paul Lynde caricature of a fire-and-brimstone preacher. The evangelical fervor in Colorado Springs is the somewhat tenuous topical hook on which the movie’s exploration of religion and power is hung.
Woven into the film is Mr. Carroll’s family history. Born Irish Catholic, he is the son of a former F.B.I. agent who became a three-star general and an enthusiastic prosecutor of the Vietnam War. When Mr. Carroll was a boy, his family had a private audience with the pope, and he recalls his feelings of awe. Years later he became an ardent opponent of the Vietnam War. His estrangement from his father began when, shortly after becoming a priest, he referred to napalm in a sermon.
The movie then dives into the distant past for Mr. Carroll’s alternative, shadow history of the Catholic Church. He dates the notion of Christian militancy to the early fourth century, when the future emperor Constantine I, on the eve of a battle for control of the Roman Empire, had a vision of the cross in the sky inscribed with words promising that under its sign he would conquer. After the battle, in which he led a victorious army wielding a sword in the shape of a cross, he legalized Christianity and the cross, previously a minor symbol, became synonymous with Christian might.
He traces the origins of Christian anti-Semitism to Constantine’s birthplace in Trier, Germany, where Crusaders sailing down the Rhine systematically destroyed Jewish communities, which the pope refused to protect unless the people converted. Centuries later Trier was the site of an agreement between the Catholic Church and Hitler, negotiated with the future Pope Pius XII, whose later refusal to speak out during the Holocaust Mr. Carroll considers to be a great shame of the church.
In the most moving segment Ms. Richardson is heard reading a letter written in 1933 to Pope Pius XI by Edith Stein urging him to speak out against Nazi persecution of the Jews. A Jewish convert to Catholicism and a Carmelite nun, Stein died in Auschwitz in 1942. The letter, which went unanswered, was made public in 2003, five years after she was canonized.
Above and beyond criticizing the church’s refusal to stand up to Hitler, “Constantine’s Sword” is a cri de coeur about the abuse of religion when aligned with the state. Jesus, “the prince of peace,” Mr. Carroll insists, was not an intolerant warmonger.
“If you think of religion as a great lake,” he warns, “it’s a lake of gasoline, and all it’s going to take is someone to drop a match into it for a terrible conflagration.” Continued @ movies.nytimes.com/2008/04/18/movies/18swor.html
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