Constantine

 

John Constantine is a Vertigo/DC comic book hero who came into being in 1985. He is a supreme “mage”, or magician, part scoundrel, part good guy.

 

In Constantine the movie (2005) Keanu Reeves plays a kind of anti-hero, a Catholic named John Constantine (note the initials JC), who as a young man committed suicide but hell didn’t want him. He is still roaming the earth, seeking redemption. He has a wry sense of humor and a really bad smoking habit; in fact it’s killing him again.

 

As a child Constantine kept seeing things and his parents had him undergo shock therapy thinking he was mentally ill. The trauma of these treatments drove him to kill himself; but after a few minutes in hell he was back on earth, alive. Now he spends his time tracking down the half-breeds, devil-like creatures who tempt us but belong in hell, where he sends them back. They do not seem to be devils, angels, or human. And they are really, really mad at John for rounding them up and returning them to eternal damnation.

 

The film opens when the Spear that pierced Christ is discovered in Mexico and a man-like creature brings it to Los Angeles. We are then introduced to John as he carries out an exorcism that by comparison makes the 1973 film The Exorcist look like a walk in the park.

 

Meanwhile, a cop named Angela (note the name) has a twin sister, (both played by Rachel Weisz) who commits suicide. John, as a police consultant, is called to the scene to figure out if she is a suicide (and in hell) or if someone pushed her, thus making this a homicide. Angela and John work together to solve this mystery throughout the rest of the film. (Is she John’s guardian angel?) All the action that follows happens in a hospital and the back of a bar in the seediest, darkest part of  that only a movie could create.

 

Constantine continues in an almost incomprehensible plot of bad theology and horror that involves an alcoholic priest (naturally) and that Spear. You have to like Constantine and Angela though – they are easy on the eyes; Peter Stormare makes one of the best devils I have ever seen and provides much of the humor – as the film is ending.

 

Constantine as a theological exploration of good and evil,right and wrong, heaven and hell, God and Satan, makes Kevin Smith’s Dogma seem like a Sunday school or CCD (=Confraternity of Christian Doctrine) lesson straight out of the catechism.

 

Constantine seems Catholic, but looks are deceiving. As a Catholic I have to ask – what is the film really saying about Catholic Christianity? Kevin Smith in Dogma questioned the faith he had been taught as a youngster; I think the film writers here are working from assumptions they have about Catholicism but without any understanding of Catholic Christian theology. No one bothered to check the facts. More than anything, this makes the film seem lazy to me.

 

Research, folks! Make the film at least plausible on some level. What or whose vision of reality is this rooted in?

 

Generally, I like comic book movies made into movies. Daredevil, X-Men and X-Men 2, Van Helsing, Hellboy and others use a Catholic visual and theological context in an entertaining, comprehensible way, even when you can’t follow the plot (Van Helsing for one). In Constantine the imagery is Catholic, the theology is a mess, and the plot mired in supernatural horror and despair. Not only is the image of a benevolent God missing, the true nature of God, the human person and his/her relationship with a benevolent God and others is obscured beyond recognition. Yes, John is capable of goodness and self-sacrifice, so we assume others are, too. But if he is some kind of savior (which I think the writers are trying to indicate by the end of the film), wow, are they confused about the balance in creation that is re-established when the grace of Christ’s passion and death is bestowed unconditionally on the human person, indeed on humanity, when a person repents and makes restitution. Suicide is objetively wrong, but responsibility is entirely subjective. Therefore, the question of sin and repentance is something we must leave to God and the person.

 

Los Angeles, the City of Angels, like New York, is frequently the site of good old disaster movies; to me this movie is a disaster from both a cinematic and theological perspective. The only angel we see who made it past the test at creation, Gabriel, crashes and burns (well, is de-winged.) Here, only Fallen Angels need apply. The film is pessimistic, dark, dank and frankly, I was mostly repelled.

 

A colleague told me that the suicide theme is just a plot devise. Of course it is; what bothers me is that the characters and action are entirely driven and dominated by the idea that the Catholic Church believes that God condemns to hell people who commit suicide. Before Vatican Council II (1962-1965) it is true that the Church would not bury people who committed suicide in consecrated cemeteries because of the social and cultural stigma and ignorance associated with suicide. But with a greater understanding of the human person and a deepening of the understanding of God’s mercy, this idea, teaching and practice, changed completely. It is therefore unfortunate that the mistaken notion that people who take their own lives are unequivocally condemned to hell because of suicide is perpetuated  in a pop film such as Constantine.This is what I regret the most in addition to the religious horror which is simply not my style.

 

Other colleagues hold that the film will engage college students, and well it might. Males, that is. Ladies, this is not a film that will appeal to most of us because of the explicit horror. The twinges of humor, as when Constantine flips the devil the bird, hardly balance the unrelenting and pervasive ugliness of the film. I wonder what viewers will talk about, with a cinematic God who is so uncaring and distant from the lives of men and women as to not show up in person or through an agent of grace, and the devil, who is so near and powerful? Is this a deist or an extreme Calvinist view of the world, or a hodge-podge of uncertainty straining to be creative? It is a year since The Passion of the Christ was released; is this the kind of religion Hollywood (well, one studio in Hollywood) thinks is a worthy sequel to release at the beginning of Lent? I admit, I wrote and continue to believe that The Passion of the Christ belongs to the horror genre, giving the genre and the film their due. Poor Constantine, however, makes horror look bad.

 

Or is the violence and extreme horror of the film a “Christian” guy thing? Do tell.

 

Plot wise, the film is in trouble from the beginning. It doesn’t know what it wants to be about: the Spear (this plot could have worked for me even if it, too, is not accurate according to traditional Christian theology) or John Constantine’s futile search for redemption because he has committed suicide. Nothing he does will save him, and it doesn’t look like God is very interested either.

 

A friend of mine wrote this to me today about another film:

 

           Didn’t Flannery O’Conner write: It is what is   

           invisible that God sees and that the

           Christian must look for? This is to say,

           the first task of writing/teaching is to

           help folks picture the invisible.

 

The filmmakers of Constantine have given us a visual theological smorgasbord ofso much that is not true and made redemption look hopeless to me. Is this really what the invisible looks like? Christians, all people of good will, keep looking. The devil is not more powerful than God; the devil is not equal to God. The film can be interpreted to be saying this, I think, and this is the most troublesome aspect of the film. It reduces the theology of the redemption to a simple black and white proposition. Horror films reduce the battle between good and evil inthe same way and for some this is cathartic. This religious horror film, however, seems like a true oxymoron rather than an insightful journey into faith.

 

But I will say this. Hell makes for a much better movie visually than any vision of heaven (What Dreams May Come tried both). If you want the “bejesus” to be scared out of you, then welcome to comic book hell.

 

___________

Here’s what the Catholic Church really says about suicide. I don’t expect Hollywood to do our work for us as people of faith. Hollywood’s job is entertainment and our job is to talk about it, unpack what it produces, try to discover the human and divine, and hopefully influence movie makers of the futureto promote the dignity of the human person in beauty, truth and goodness. Constantine just misses the boat.

 

 

The Catechism of the Catholic Church online

http://www.scborromeo.org/ccc.htm

Suicide

2280 Everyone is responsible for his life before God who has given it to him. It is God who remains the sovereign Master oflife. We are obliged to accept life gratefully and preserve it for his honor and the salvation of our souls. We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of.

2281 Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life. It is gravely contrary to the just love of self. It likewise offends love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations. Suicide is contrary to love for the living God.

2282 If suicide is committed with the intention of setting an example, especially to the young, it also takes on the gravity of scandal. Voluntary co-operation in suicide is contrary to the moral law.

Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.

2283 We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.

2325 Suicide is seriously contrary to justice, hope, and charity. It is forbidden by the fifth commandment.

 

2 Comments

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  2. > Before Vatican Council II (1962-1965) it is true that the Church
    > would not bury people who committed suicide in consecrated
    > cemeteries because of the social and cultural stigma and ignorance
    > associated with suicide. But with a greater understanding of the
    > human person and a deepening of the understanding of God's
    > mercy, this idea, teaching and practice, changed completely.

    Well, the practice has certainly changed, but I’m not so sure the Church’s idea has, and I think your list of “reasons” is incomplete at least. Do you see no ‘teaching’ in the Church’s (currently ignored) practice?

    On the one hand, we’re told not to fear death. We have the help of the sacraments, prayers for the help we might need in the next life, and the promise of Paradise. Why not make a Way of the Cross, a good Confession, receive Communion, and shoot oneself? Paradise Found, right?

    The Church says “no way, Jose” and reinforces this with some practical signs of disapproval. While it is true that these signs have been misunderstood, this is due often to malice — people teaching falsely about the Church in order to discredit Her. And of course catechesis remained dismal during a century during which catechesis became vastly more important than any time since the seventh century because of changing ambiances in our culture.

    The despair you note in the film is precisely what gave rise to the protestant revolt. Martin Luther was mired in supernatural horror. I like the way you put that.

    What would you think of making John Constantine's quest on earth a kind of Purgatory? Chasing down the demons that influence people to commit suicide or something? I'm thinking about "Its a Wonderful Life" and the angel who had to earn his wings. OK, that theology is fouled-up too, but not too badly.  


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