July 3, 2008

Constantine's Sword

*** out of ****

Religious zealots may not like the new documentary “Constantine’s Sword” too much. If they were not already turned off by James Carroll’s 2001 book of the same name, then they will likely despise this film. Both the book and the film compare Carroll’s own history through religion, including his role as a former Roman Catholic priest, to the history of Christians and their involvement in anti-Semitism, but the film takes an extra step in uncovering the pressures of Colorado’s evangelical Christian right on the Air Force. Well-directed by Oren Jacoby, the film tries to unleash the symbolism of thousands of years of religious travesties while filling viewers’ minds with even more symbolism. In essence, Carroll may have found the world’s “real” weapon of mass destruction - religion. Creative with the camera, “Constantine’s Sword” is a brilliant, fascinating, and enlightening film.

One of the best sequences of the film comes at the beginning, and I like it for its style; it features a superimposition of several crosses, central to the way Carroll sees the world and important to the thematic symbol of the cross as “Constantine’s Sword”—the harbinger of war. According to Carroll, the cross only became an important religious symbol under Roman Emperor Constantine, who had a vision that foretold his conquest of the Romans if he would hold a cross before his army when he went to battle. In this way, Carroll asserts that the cross has long been a symbol of war, starting with Constantine, and he lingers for a while on the emperor while visiting European landmarks. He then analyzes how the Jews have for so long faced so much persecution in the name of Christ. He contends that the Bible may have twisted history in making the Jews out to be Christians’ greatest enemies. Visiting one Jewish friend, he advises “if you want to study anti-Semitism, don’t study Jews . . . study non-Jews,” and this film would reasonably agree because it claims that Christians, especially those in the Catholic Church, are the reason for much of the world’s violence and war. He says that religion is “even a sponsor” of war, and at the end of the film, there is a connection of violence and war to modern times with the use of a 360 low angle shot of a cross with a plane flying over, which ties the symbolism of the cross as a weapon of religion to the use of a plane as a weapon in our nation’s current war. In addition, Carroll accuses Christians of hypocrisy since their feigned innocence ignores thousands of years of “evil” just like the Muslims who appear violent and evil today.

Meanwhile, a concerned Carroll introduces a well-hidden subject unbeknownst to America: the indoctrination of the Air Force by conservative Christian ideology. Only through some Jewish subjects who enlighten the narrator as to their own modern persecution can Carroll relay their trials to America. It disgusts me to watch the smug smile on the interviewed evangelical preacher’s face as he blindly ignores the wrong he is doing in forcing himself and his religion on those who have long and continuously been persecuted for “killing Jesus” like the Bible says they did thousands of years ago. This part of the film shows the effect of religion today, especially in a nation that should be practicing complete religious freedom. The battles for the freedom of religion and the separation of church and state in today’s politics ultimately uncover the pressure of the Christian right on the Air Force close to home.

All in all, “Constantine’s Sword” is a controversial film and a great history lesson, though occasionally a little boring. It balances the plot fixtures well, weaving a seamless, fascinating, eye-opening, and informative story. Carroll is an intriguing narrator, especially because of his past and how it has influenced how he has abandoned his Catholic heritage for the truth of the connection between religion and war. By the end of the film, I guarantee that viewers will form opinions on Christianity in both politics and the world. And war.

“Constantine’s Sword” will be showing at the Belcourt Theater starting July 11.

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