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Constantine: Hollywood’s Vision of the Supernatural
By Steve Beard

Hollywood is not the only one showing a heightened interest in the darkside of the supernatural. The Vatican recently announced that it would be offering a two-month course at Regina Apostolorum, a prestigious pontifical university in Rome, to study the history and the black magic theology of Satanism, as well as instruction in exorcism.  

If Constantine were a scratch-and-sniff film, the theater would be overrun with the foul odor of burning sulfur and cigarette smoke. The stinky sulfur would be emitting from the gross-me-out demons, and the cigarette plumes would be wafting from John Constantine’s (Keanu Reeves) cancer-stricken lungs. He is an exorcist who has seen the whirlwind of flames on the other side and is trying get in the good graces of the heavenly host in order to slip through the pearly gates. Of course, this is a Hollywood supernatural action flick. The faithful will find more than few things cringe-worthy, such as the crass language and doctrinal aberrations. After all, theological orthodoxy plays second fiddle to really cool brass knuckles with engraved crosses and a Gatling gun made from a crucifix that is used to send Satan’s minions back to the fiery pits of hell. The Latin inscriptions on the gun read: a cruce salus, “from the cross comes salvation”; decus it tutamen, “an adornment and a means of salvation”; and dei gratia, “by the grace of God.”

As a comic book adaptation of Hellblazer, it has trademark edginess and over-the-topness in the storyline and imagery. In comics, superheroes leap over tall buildings and spin spiderwebs. In this story, Constantine asks: “What if I told you that God and the devil made a wager, a kind of standing bet for the souls of all mankind?” All I could hear in my mind during that line was some of my Christian friends saying, No, they didn’t. That is not in the Bible. If it helps, reread the conversation between God and the devil in the first chapter of Job before seeing Constantine. Imagine that was an ongoing, world-wide modus operandi, rather than an isolated incident.

In this comic book world, there is a kind of Cold War détente­a balance of power­between the powers of righteousness and evil. God and the devil are not allowed to directly intervene in earthly affairs, but there are a species of half-breed demons and angels who are allowed to influence humans. 

Constantine’s blessing and curse is that he can see these supernatural beings and is drawn into a strange suicide case of the twin of Angela Dodson, a street-savvy Los Angeles policewoman (Rachel Weisz). “I don’t believe in the devil,” she tells Constantine. To which he replies, “Well, you should­he believes in you.” 

Much to their surprise and consternation, Constantine and Dodson discover a ghastly plot by the angel Gabriel (Tilda Swinton), God’s gatekeeper on earth, to kickstart the apocalypse. “Those who survive this hell on earth will be worthy of God’s love,” says Gabriel. 

Constantine is not catechism class. It is a big-budget, spooky action movie with the feel of a revved-up cross between The Exorcist and Men in Black. Constantine is a gifted and tortured soul trying to get past St. Peter by exorcising demons. He drinks, cusses, and smokes with studied ferociousness. 

“It’s not The Passion of the Christ that we made here,” says Shia Lebouf (I, Robot and Holes) who plays Chaz Chandler, a Constantine understudy who doubles as his chauffeur. “I don’t think that the film was made to push ideas or philosophies on anyone. It was to jerk you out of your seat, put you in a place that’s very real, but make it fantastical and make you enjoy it. It’s purely, purely for enjoyment purposes only. I mean, I think that if someone walks in with a serious mindset, it could permanently affect them.”

These entertainment/enlightenment films seem to attract Keanu Reeves. He played Siddhartha in Little Buddha, was wooed by the prince of darkness in The Devil’s Advocate, and saved the day as the messianic savior in The Matrix trilogy. For his part in this movie, Reeves views it as a kind of “secular religiosity”­a non-sectarian and relatable anti-hero’s journey. “I think these motifs of seekers, messiahs, anti-heroes, heroes­they’re journeys that deal with things we deal with in our day to day lives in a way,” Reeves says, “and they’re entertaining…I think they’re worthwhile.”    

Director Francis Lawrence and Reeves met with a priest to learn about the different Latin phrases and Scriptures used in an exorcism. “I just wanted to know really practical things, like how do you hold someone possessed by the devil,” acknowledges Reeves. His work on the movie also relieved some of his uncertainty about hell. “Constantine kind of knows it’s fact. So I guess if I had any doubts before, I probably have a few less doubts now.”

The film is a mind-bending, theology-probing, fear-stirring journey through the graphic and relentless underworld battles between angels and demons. In the midst of this R-rated film, it is not difficult to be reminded of St. Paul’s tutorial on spiritual warfare: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12).

The movie’s focus is on redemption and salvation (faith vs. works), while the depictions of hell truly conjure up Dante’s inestimable phrase, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” This is the kind of supernatural thriller that will have you at the edge of your seat­or jumping out of it. 

“There are very serious themes and questions housed within what is undoubtedly an entertaining Hollywood movie,” says co-star Rachel Weisz (The Mummy). “And I don’t see why one can’t have both.”

Steve Beard is the creator of­a website devoted to faith and pop culture. Constantine is rated R for “violence and demonic images.”



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