I have a movie and a miniseries to review this time. They’re not very similar, but they do both relate to religion.
Constantine’s Sword – This documentary film from 2007 was based on an earlier book by former priest James Carroll, and I think it must have been pretty new when we added it to our Netflix queue. Carroll discusses Christian antisemitism throughout history up to modern times, including the murder of many Jews during the Crusades, and the establishment by Pope Paul V of the Roman Ghetto in 1555. Roman Jews had been protected to some level by the papacy since the sixth century under Pope Gregory, but Paul forced them all to life in a segregated area with the gates locked at night and most professions forbidden to the inhabitants. It continued until the establishment of Italy as a nation in 1870, but of course the Roman Jews were persecuted again under the fascist government. Carroll, whose father and grandfather both served in the Air Force, also addresses more recent evangelical proselytizing at the Air Force Academy, and the bullying of Jewish cadets. He interviews Ted Haggard at what must have been shortly before he resigned in disgrace after being caught with a male prostitute, as that’s mentioned in a note at the end. That guy has such an unsettling smile, and he smiled all the time. Part of the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s was a pronouncement that it wasn’t fair to blame the Jews collectively for the death of Jesus, not that that made any sense anyway, but there are still people who insist on that even today. Even if Matthew 27 is correct that the Jewish leaders called for Jesus’ blood to be “on “us and on our children,” which is unlikely anyway as what we know of Pontius Pilate doesn’t sound like the kind of person who would be that accommodating to the Jewish population, how can anyone possibly pass on guilt to descendants who haven’t even been born yet? That’s what some people also think about Adam and Eve, though. There were a few parts where I wasn’t totally sure the information in the documentary was entirely accurate, although this could be due more to the conversational style than to actual research failure. Carroll seems to suggest that Roman antisemitism started with Constantine, presumably disregarding all the anti-Jewish measures by the Romans in the first century. Maybe his point was more that a Christian Emperor should have been more amenable to the religion of which Christianity started as a sect, and instead he doubled down on the persecution. And I recently read something challenging the idea that the Vatican was as supportive of Hitler as is often suggested, although the idea that the Pope probably could have done more to oppose the Holocaust is probably still valid. But then, what world leaders in that time COULDN’T have done more to oppose the Holocaust? The film meandered quite a bit, but presented some interesting points on its subject.
Good Omens – I read the book this series was based on, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, in my junior year of college, after I’d read and enjoyed a few of Pratchett’s Discworld books. It wasn’t until some time later that I read anything else of Gaiman’s, even though he’s probably better known here in the States. It’s one of those works that incorporates just about every sort of humor, commenting on both the everyday and the big picture, the local (I’m sure I didn’t get all of the specifically English references) and the universal, including both parody and more poignant satire. I remember seeing many indications since then of a movie in the works, which eventually turned into a miniseries with Gaiman himself writing the screenplay. I’d seen positive reviews of the series, as well as stories about Christian groups wanting to get it canceled. I’m not entirely sure why complaints by fringe groups are considered so newsworthy these days; they rarely seem to be taken at all seriously or to affect anything. I guess part of it is that, even if practically everybody laughs off the dumbasses who insist on editing all the women out of The Last Jedi, it’s still reflective of a larger societal problem with misogyny. I do have to say the people complaining about Good Omens, with some of them being such bad researchers that they bitched to Netflix, which had nothing to do with its production, aren’t exactly helping the image of conservative Christians as busybodies who object to anyone ever enjoying themselves. And while there are certainly jokes on religion in the series, overall it’s more of a parody of pop culture conceptions of religion. The bit with the demons wanting the Antichrist to be raised by an American ambassador is an obvious play on The Omen, which I doubt anyone thinks has good theology. There’s also a bit of an out in that even the angels aren’t in direct communication with God, and there are clear hints that everything is working out according to Her (yes, the voice of God is a woman here) plan even when it goes against the general consensus of Heaven, which provides somewhat of an out from saying that it’s bashing God specifically. The main focus of the story is on the angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley, respectively played by Michael Sheen and David Tennant, who have over the millennia become good friends, perhaps even more. I’m sure they’d deny the latter, but they often act like a couple, and other people tend to treat them that way. And, as per the book, Aziraphale comes across as stereotypically gay, even if he’s technically non-sexual. They’ve come to an agreement to help each out, while keeping the whole thing secret from their respective employers, Heaven and Hell, both largely ineffective and petty bureaucratic organizations eager to go ahead with their celestial war. Due to a mix-up at the hospital, the Antichrist ends up in rural Oxfordshire and grows up to be a pretty normal kid. Also featuring are the descendant of a witch who wrote a totally accurate book of prophecies, the technically inept Newton Pulsifer who ends up working for a guy who sees witchcraft everywhere, and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, who have adjusted their ills to modern life. While I haven’t reread the book since reading it twenty years ago, so I don’t know for sure, I can’t recall too much that they left out, one of the advantages to a miniseries over a movie. They did omit the really funny televangelist song about Jesus being a telephone repairman, but they did the rest so well that I can’t really complain. There were a few elements included without the setups that made the jokes work in the book, like all of the cassettes in Crowley’s car eventually turning into Queen’s Greatest Hits and Elvis working as a fast food cook, so I guess they were mostly there as nods to the people who’ve read it. And the former was an excuse to use a lot of Queen songs. The story is set in the present day, which means it was updated a bit from the book published in 1990, but these are generally pretty minor bits that don’t much affect the plot, like people having mobile phones and using video chat. It’s also pretty handy that Aziraphale and Crowley, having lived for thousands of years, are often anachronistic in their lifestyles, so they could still use, for instance, a joke about Crowley trapping another demon on an answering machine tape. Really, I can’t think of anything that stood out as not working.