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A Profile of Faith

In between long drags of his cigarette, Mel Gibson asked Jim Caviezel again if he wanted to portray Jesus in Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ, as Hollywood has a history of typecasting actors after high-profile roles.

“Absolutely,” Caviezel replied. While he joked with Gibson that he was perfect for the role (being 33 years old with the initials of JC), it was Caviezel’s strong faith that led him to the acting profession.

“I have no doubt that God put me in this business. When I was a teenager in a movie theater in my hometown, I felt this huge pain in my chest, like a voice saying, ‘Please get into this business—this is what I need for you to do.’ And I asked, ‘But who am I? I know nothing about acting. I don’t know any actors. I’ve never taken any classes,'” he said in a recent interview.

Besides, Caviezel has been able to find land other roles since The Passion and Frequency. He stars as Kainan in the upcoming Howard McCain directed film Outlander and will work with Ray Liotta and Gerard Depardieu in the film Only in New York.

Back in Nashville last week, Caviezel took part in the second annual “A Light for the City” concert in the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. Sponsored in part by Thomas Nelson, the concert was the perfect setting for a scene from “The Word of Promise” audio bible, recently released to bookstores by Thomas Nelson.Jim Caviezel visits Nashville

In this 25-hour, 20-CD set, Caviezel leads an all-star cast in a state-of-the-art presentation of the New Testament. Narrated by Michael York, this multi-voiced audio drama features original scored music and movie quality sound effects set to the text of the New King James version of the Bible.

<When you purchase the Word of Promise audio bible, your church can receive 10% of the proceeds. For details about the “Pay it Forward Program,” go to www.thewordofpromise.com.>

The production also includes Academy Award winners Louis Gossett, Jr. as John and Marisa Tomei as Mary Magdalene, along with John Heard as Matthew, Lou Diamond Phillips as Mark, Chris McDonald as Luke, Stacy Keach as Paul, Ernie Hudson as Peter, Kimberly Williams-Paisley as Mary the Mother of God, Richard Dreyfuss voicing quotes from Moses, and Terrence Stamp as the voice of God.

The original music for the audio bible was composed and conducted by Stefano Mainetti, one of the two composers who scored music for Sony’s “Abba Pater,” the album which blended original music with the voice and chants by Pope John Paul II.

For Caviezel, portraying Jesus in The Passion was the most physically demanding role of his career. During the course of the production, he was struck by lightning, felt the sharp barbs of the whip when twice it missed its target, and suffered hypothermia from the intense cold as he hung on the cross.

To pass the time during the tedious filming delays, Caviezel listened to music on headphones. One song in particular, Michael W. Smith’s “Above All,” helped him get through the filming of the crucifixion scenes.

He felt “rejected and alone as all those around me laughed while drinking their hot coffees, oblivious to what was occurring. Jesus must have felt like this—forsaken, rejected, alone, and despised. The song helped me pray in a very deep way—to pray without words, to pray from the heart. The discomfort, the loneliness, the split shoulder, the raw flesh all forced me into the arms of God because I had nowhere else to go for a performance I knew I was unable to create.”

Caviezel has challenged everyone from university students to priests and bishops to resist the desire for comfort, popularity, and timidity. In an interview published in the Catholic Standard & Times, the newspaper for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, he challenged leaders to preach the unpopular gospel “in season and out of season.” He called on all Catholics to recommit to prayer, the rosary, fasting, frequenting confession and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

“Our whole world is entrenched in sin. There in the quiet of our hearts a woman is calling us, each one of us, back to her Son. Jesus is there for us in the Scriptures. How often do we ignore Him? We must shake off this indifference. Only the faith and the wisdom of the Church can save us, but it requires men and women, warriors ready to risk their good names, even their very lives to stand up for the truth.”

At the closing of his speech at the Nashville concert, Caviezel gave a passionate rendition of Mel Gibson’s battle cry from the Oscar-winning Braveheart. He challenged the audience to fight for the freedom that is real—freedom from weakness and from the slavery of sin.

“You, my friends, by God, you must fight with the Holy Spirit as your shield and with Christ as your sword. May you fight with St. Michael and all the angels in defending God, in sending Lucifer and his army straight back to hell where they belong!”

CF

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Analysis

While the recent release of The Da Vinci Code has garnered worldwide publicity and the scrutiny of Christian clergy and religious groups, the upcoming film The Omen has so far flown under the radar of this same scrutiny.

Yet like The Da Vinci Code, The Omen uses scriptural references and popular culture images to take viewers on a fictional thrill ride while also distorting the symbols and teachings of the Catholic Church. Furthermore, it uses news clips of real tragedies to gain a familiarity with the audience in order to make more credible the film’s premise that the Apocalypse and the Anti-Christ, as foretold by the Book of Revelations, may be here – today.

But in director John Moore’s vision, who is causing these horrible events: Satan and the arrival of the Anti-Christ or mankind itself?

The film is an updated version of the 1976 horror classic of the same name that starred Gregory Peck and Lee Remick and was directed by Richard Donner. The 2006 film stars Liev Schreiber and Julia Stiles in the main roles and was directed by John Moore (Behind Enemy Lines, Flight of the Phoenix). The current remake uses most of the original screenplay written by David Seltzer (TV’s Revelations).

As the story begins, we meet a young diplomat (Schreiber) whose wife (Stiles) is in the hospital delivering their first-born son. However, the father learns from the hospital’s chaplain that his son died in childbirth. In order to spare the mother from the awful truth, after previous unsuccessful pregnancies, perhaps the father will adopt another boy born at the same time, but whose mother died in childbirth.

OmenYears later, as their son Damien grows up in the privileged home of the U.S. Ambassador to England, strange and horrible events start happening. A nanny commits suicide in front of birthday party guests, zoo animals become enraged at the site of Damien, and a mysterious Mrs. Baylock arrives to care for the boy. (In a casting coup, the director enlists Mia Farrow as the new nanny. Her participation is a direct nod to her starring role in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, the first famous “son of Satan” film).

Meanwhile, the ambassador is visited by a priest who implores him to accept Christ and research the true origins of his son. Aided by a photographer whose photographs foretell horrific events, the ambassador follows the growing warning in his heart and delves deeper into his adopted son’s past.

Convinced by the strange events surrounding Damien (and the “666” birthmark on his scalp, labeled “the mark of the Beast” in Revelations), the ambassador takes steps to end the boy’s life and prevent the maturity of the supposed Anti-Christ on earth.

The majority of the film that deals with the main storyline is a fine, contemporary retelling of the original film. While The Da Vinci Code is a mystery thriller, The Omen is a shock horror film throughout. The director added new dream sequences and rich colors in order to layer psychological terrors onto the horrific events of the film.

The parents, much younger than the stars of the original, are more engaging and thus bring us deeper into their fears and questions about the true nature of their son. Mia Farrow’s nanny adds a creepy, sometimes comedic personality to the film.

To combat the difficulty the director sees in asking “the audience to believe something immediately that’s far fetched, to say the least,” he adds controversial new scenes at the film’s beginning and end to herald the possible beginning of Armageddon.

Historical film clips of the World Trade Center burning on 9/11, the fiery remains of the Challenger explosion streaking across the sky, and the destructive waters of the Tsunami in India and the Gulf Coast floods set an ominous tone for the film.

“There has never been a more salient time to remind people that evil is neither a concept nor a theory,” Moore says in the film’s publicity materials. “It has a human face and it empowers itself through human actions. The true nature of evil has never been more apparent.

“In the past four years alone,” Moore continues, “the world has been hit with devastating events – political, natural and man-made. One can’t help but notice a certain momentum.”

Indeed, the connection of these historical and cinematic events utilizes a dispensational view of Christian history that many fundamentalist Christians have adopted. This view purports that man’s relationship with God is a series of historical events that began in the Old Testament and will continue to the actualization of the Kingdom of God as portrayed in the Book of Revelations. The Left Behind series of books is written around this view.

In contrast, the Church teaches us that the foundation for the Kingdom of God was built upon the covenants that God made with all mankind. In addition, the Kingdom of God is here today, the “redemptive presence of God actualized through the power of God’s reconciling Spirit.”

The final events of this world are “grounded in the redemptive work of Jesus Christ and are anticipated even now in faith, hope, charity, in the sacraments, and in the Church itself.” (Catholicism by Richard P. McBrien)

Moore ends the film with a troublesome new scene – a dramatic depiction of Pope John Paul II in bed taking his last breath, a crystal goblet of red wine falling down onto his white cassock, the final blood spilling of the film.

During interviews following a preview of the film in New York, I asked Moore why he used actors to portray the death of the pope instead of news footage. Was he trying to inflame emotions and enhance publicity for the film by making some sort of connection between the pope’s death and the Apocalypse?

“It was simply a visual demonstration of the triumph of dark over light, a moviemaking technique,” said the director. “I struggled with it. I had it in and out of the movie a couple times. (In the end) I wanted to portray a loss in the battle, not just a victory, because it makes (the film) feel all the more chilling.”

There were significant technical and scheduling aspects to completing the film, according to Moore. There were only 10 months between the first phone call from Fox Studios to Moore and the release date. One has to wonder if the film would have been made at all if not for the marketing-driven release date of 6/6/06.

Liev Schreiber said that he played the role of Robert Thorn as a lapsed Catholic who was “familiar with those passages of Scripture but maybe felt some reticence that it held some truth.” Schreiber ably carries the audience along for the ride as he portrays Thorn’s emotional journey from incredulity to possibility to acceptance.

In the end, Thorn believes so much that he draws upon his faith and recites the Lord’s Prayer in the climatic scene, dialogue that was not in the original screenplay. “It was an instinct that I had, it wasn’t scripted. But John liked it and we went with it,” said Schreiber.

“It made sense to me because what he was doing was horrible. In order to accomplish it, he had to put his faith into something. If he accepted the premise that the prophecies of Revelations were true, then he also had to accept the premise of The Lord’s Prayer and ask for the Lord’s forgiveness for what he was doing,” recounted Schreiber.

Films like this, according to Schreiber, allow us to “vent our anxieties and our fears” even though it is just a “popcorn thriller.” We are relieved, he says, when we can say at the end that “it’s only a movie.”

CF
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First published in the June 2, 2006 issue of The Tennessee Register.
© 2006 Christopher Fenoglio.

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Analysis

Film, like other works of art, not only tells a story, but often reveals truths about the director and the audience for whom it was made.

As Baby Boomers struggle to reconcile their aging bodies and comfortable lifestyles, many films about heaven, the afterlife and the meaning of life have graced the silver screen during the past decades. On the whole, these films can tell us a great deal about the society in which we live.

For instance, in the last 30 years there have been two remakes of the 1941 film Here Comes Mr. Jordan (Heaven Can Wait starring Warren Beatty in 1978 and Down to Earth with Chris Rock in 2001). In these films, a boxer/quarterback/stand-up comic is taken to heaven too early due to an angelic mistake and is put back on earth as a millionaire playboy. His mission is to live a full life and touch the lives of others until the time comes for his official trip to heaven.

These films reinforce the idea that we should not squander our talents and riches on a decadent lifestyle, but use these gifts to help others. The “brotherhood of man” will be better served if everyone works for the whole, not for each other.

Obviously, directors and screenplay writers can not research the afterlife, but they can draw upon ancient texts, oral traditions and Church teachings in their art. Unfortunately there are very few scriptural references to use. Heaven, or the beatific vision of God, is never mentioned in the Old Testament and is only rarely mentioned in the New Testament.

As Father Richard McBrien writes in Catholicism, the beatific vision of God is “the full union of the human person with God. It is that toward which every person strives. It is the goal of human existence.” When we see God face-to-face, McBrien writes, “we become fully like God, no trace of selfishness remains.”

HeavenThis quest for a greater understanding of our unique selves is illustrated in the TV movie The Five People You Meet in Heaven, based upon the best-selling book by Mitch Albom. In this story, Eddie (Jon Voight) is a maintenance man at the Ruby Pier Amusement Park. Although he wants to be an engineer, he spends his entire life repairing the carnival rides, struggling with a wounded leg from WWII and dealing with the loss of his wife after only a few years of marriage. He believes his life was a big waste of time.

After Eddie dies in an accident, he visits the individual heavens of five people who had the most influence on his life. At times he is confused as the details are revealed, but slowly he begins to understand that even strangers are connected to his life. “We are all connected,” says the Blue Man (Jeff Daniels). “Strangers are just family we don’t yet know.”

When Eddie gets to his personal heaven, he fully appreciates the life he led, as he is surrounded by all the people whose lives he saved through his work. His frustration and self-loathing are washed away like mud on a river stone. He becomes one with his people and God.

The Church teaches us that death is at once final and unique. There is no question of reincarnation, a belief held in many Eastern religions. “Those who might wish to cross from here to you cannot do so, nor can someone cross from your side to us.” (Lk 16:26). However, reincarnation is an underlying theme in the poignant comedy Defending Your Life, starring and directed by Albert Brooks.

After he dies in automobile accident, Daniel finds himself on a shuttle like the ones at Universal Studios. He is delivered to a modest hotel room in Judgment City, where he will stay for four days of examination.

Though not a trial, nine days of his life will be examined (by a prosecutor and two judges) to determine whether or not he has grown past the fears of life on earth. If he has, he can move forward to a new existence. If not, he has to go back and live another life on earth, even though he has already lived more than 20 lives.

We see scenes from Daniel’s life when he does not fight back on the playground, he freezes during an important business presentation to a large audience, and he immediately accepts a low salary offer at a new job, though he was prepared to fight through the negotiations.

While in Judgment City, Daniel falls in love with Julia (Meryl Streep), a courageous woman whose life easily impresses her judges and wins her first-class hotel accommodations. Yet Daniel is still afraid to fully commit to this new love and he is marked for return to Earth.

The anxieties shown by Daniel (family, work, marriage) all prevent him from fully living his life and rising to a new existence. This theme again resonates with the Boomers who find themselves balancing their ideals with the necessities of earning a living and maintaining a healthy, loving marriage.

When a spouse dies, does that love survive? According to Sam Wheat (Patrick Swayze in Ghost), it does. “It’s amazing, Molly. The love inside – you take it with you.”

But what if one spouse in a marriage falters along life’s road and ends up at the opposite end of heaven? Robin Williams explores this twist in the film What Dreams May Come.

When death takes Chris unexpectedly from his soul mate Annie, he lands in a heaven just like one of his wife’s paintings. “We all paint our own heavens,” says Albert (Cuba Gooding, Jr.), “you’re just the first one to use real paints!”

These paintings keep the connection strong between Chris and his wife. But when she crumbles under the despair of first losing their only two children and then her husband to car crashes, she commits suicide.

Determined to save Annie from an everlasting hell, Chris journeys to the underworld to find and save his wife. In the end, the strength of their love overcomes the evils of self-doubt and despair. They are reunited with their children and once again share their unifying circle of love.

Should we look forward to heaven? Contemporary Punk band The Spill Canvas focuses attention on the here and now. “Heaven’s not a place you go when you die; it’s that moment in life when you actually feel alive, so live for that moment now.”

We don’t know what heaven will be like, standing face-to-face with Our Father, enveloped by His love forevermore. Bart Millard of MercyMe says it best in his song:

Surrounded by Your Glory, what will my heart feel
Will I dance for you, Jesus? Or in awe of You, be still?
Will I stand in Your presence, or to my knees will I fall?
Will I sing Hallelujah? Will I be able to speak at all?
I can only imagine! I can only imagine!

CF
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First published in the March 24, 2006 issue of The Tennessee Register.
© 2006 Christopher Fenoglio.

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