I don't know what most devout Christians expect from the Second Coming, but in a relentlessly inspirational new movie called Joshua, the Son of God does it all for the citizens of a small town in Alabama. He tosses a 500-pound log onto his shoulder as if it were a Louisville Slugger, then carves the thing into an elegant statue of St. Peter. He plays electric guitar a little better than Eric Clapton. He raises the dead. He goes one up on Emeril, teaching an unhappy housewife how to cook perfect catfish. When he's not curing blindness, redeeming faithless widows or rebuilding churches knocked flat by hurricanes, he shoots a pretty fair game of eight-ball down at the local saloon. Here's a fellow who could take out Minnesota Fats, but he purposely misses a couple of shots so his opponent can save face.
Joshua is the first feature produced by Epiphany Films, a subsidiary of the new Philip Anschutz-owned company Crusader Entertainment, and it's aimed squarely at the emerging Christian market -- the multitudes fed up with raw sex, exploding vehicles and moral relativism at the movies (see related story, page 16). Rated G and unabashedly fervent, it offers a vision of contemporary life in which the divine overcomes the earthly, where miracles are commonplace and entire societies are redeemed by goodness. Wearing hiking boots and a tan suede jacket, the mysterious and charismatic young stranger Joshua (the rather ordinary-looking Tony Goldwyn, late of Bounce and American Rhapsody) slips quietly into troubled little Auburn -- much like Shane once came to town -- and casts a magical spell on everyone as he inspires a new sense of community. A rude teenager at war with his father finds peace. An honorable but uncertain priest (Kurt Fuller) who's under the thumb of an authoritarian and fearful pastor named Tardone (F. Murray Abraham) discovers his true self. A gentle giant with a terrible stutter is transformed into an eloquent preacher. When a young woman named Maggie (short for Magdalene, no?) puts a move on Joshua, he chastely demurs and goes on with his work, which includes saving the glowering Father Tardone.
In the end, gentle Joshua gets invited to the Vatican and has an audience with the Pope, who in this case is Italian (Giancarlo Giannini). One minute of casual talk, and the Pope knows exactly who the boss is.
Horseplayers, used-car salesmen and those in thrall to the demon rum will likely find all of this a tad icky. By any measure, director Jon Purdy (who once made a rather less-religious film called Dillinger and Capone) lays the Christian salvation message on pretty thick, and the soundtrack rings out with uplifting tunes by Christian rock groups like Anointed, Chris Eaton and Third Day. One Brooks & Dunn number, "Everyday Heroes," was co-written by, of all people, Utah senator Orrin Hatch. Unless you're born again, you're probably in the wrong theater. The script, by Brad Mirman and Keith Giglio, from a best-selling novel by a Catholic priest, Joseph Girzone, even features a version of the Last Supper at which Joshua's new friends in Auburn gather round the table in soft candlelight, murmuring. "There were twelve of us," one of them marvels.
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Regardless of how the heathen devotees of everyone from Scorsese to Schwarzenegger take to Christian movies like this one or, say, the recent Taliesin Jones, one general observation is in order. If mystical/religious filmmaking means to do more than preach to the choir, it will need to interest audiences in -- if not convince them of -- the leap from the temporal to the transcendent. That's what good spiritual films like The Lord of the Rings do and what Joshua doesn't do so well. Devotion is good for the soul, but can the same be said for treacle?