Doc of the Day: Constantine's Sword Review - Dan Schindel

Doc of the Day: Constantine's Sword

Posted in Days of Docs, Reviews by - June 08, 2012

An ex-priest explores the Christian roots of anti-semitism and finds a troubling vein in the new Evangelicalism.

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Dir. Oren Jacoby, 2007, 93 min

Every individual has a stake in any given social issue. That’s why it’s always a plus when a documentary can tie the personal consequences in with the greater effects of larger movements. We care more about people than ideas, so helping us understand how people are affected by events and issues will help us better understand those topics. Often, docs fail to be as good as they could be by not pursuing the emotional thread of a topic. Until now, I never thought that a doc could be too personal and not enough socially-focused. Constantine’s Sword proved me wrong.

The film is based on a book by James Carroll, a former Catholic priest who is now a journalist and historian. In the book, Carroll outlines the history of anti-Semitism and the significant part that the Church has played in the persecution of Jews over the millennia. He’s doing the same thing here, touring sites of atrocities inflicted against Jews all over Europe. Carroll’s journey is spurred by the lawsuit that Michael Weinstein brought against the Air Force for religious discrimination against his son. Carroll sees in the current close ties between Evangelical Christianity and militarism a disconcerting potential for future state-sanctioned religious violence.

Anti-semitism is largely a Christian invention. It’s an ugly truth that all reasonable Christians have to acknowledge. Before Emperor Constantine, the cross was rarely used as a symbol of the faith. He took a liking to its resemblance to a sword, and made it the emblem of his conquest. Ever since, the religion has had a violent component it hasn’t been able to shake. And the Jews have borne the brunt of a good deal of that aggression, accused of being “Christ-killers.” Weinstein’s lawsuit came over events that evolved out of the reactions from cadets in the Air Force Training Academy to the release of The Passion of the Christ.  This problem isn’t behind us.

Carroll, as both an ex-priest and someone who once thought of joining the military, feels an intimate connection to this topic. We learn just as if not more things about him than we do about the the subject at hand. He talks about how his faith has morphed over the years, shaped by new understanding of the past and how religious institutions will often bury their unsavory actions. The Pope at the time could have done so much to fight The Holocaust, but didn’t, and now the Church denies the Christian motivations of the Nazis. Carroll’s is a story of moving from naivety to a more mature understanding of faith. On this part, I was able to sympathize with him deeply.

But only to a point. After a while, Carroll is simply deluging us with information about himself that we do not need to know. Relating one’s internal struggle to  external events isn’t an invalid idea, but sometimes in this film, it becomes nearly solipsistic. Carroll almost places more value on how the misdeeds of the Church have affected him than it has the Jews in places, which is an absolute misfire. And sometimes these segments, like when he relates meeting Pope John XXIII, are downright boring and borderline irrelevant. Worse, though, is that the movie fails to connect the past and present often enough, to draw a line between historical persecution and what is currently happening in the military. It undercuts all sense of urgency, and weakens Carroll’s message.

Constantine’s Sword is an ambitious film built on a worthy idea that falls short because its “star” hogs too much of the spotlight. What could and should have been a stirring call to action for religiously sane people and the nonreligious instead bogs itself down with dull pontification. I’d never thought that I’d ever call for a documentary to carve out some of its emotional content and concentrate more on the cold facts, but there you go.

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Dan Schindel loves movies more than you do.

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