Constantine and the Theology of Crisis

Mark Villano

The recent film Constantine, based on an “adult comic book” series, envisions the world as a battleground between angelic and demonic forces. Its hero, John Constantine, a combination of film noir detective and exorcist, investigates catastrophic other-worldly events in the dark corners of Los Angeles. Its imagery borrows freely from Judeo-Christian, and mostly Roman Catholic, traditions, and just as freely leaves those traditions behind. The effort is to provide a typical supernatural horror movie packaged for its youthful audience, nothing more.

No doubt the choice of Keanu Reeves for the title role, as well as an extensive marketing budget, be- trays its producers’ determination to attain “mega- hit” status for their movie. Among the materials offered by Grace Hill Media, the PR firm handling the promotion of the film to religious groups, we read this: “High school and college kids will literally be talking about this film for months! This is a must-see for educators, youth pastors and college professors, as the theological dialogue that erupts from this film will be nonstop.” I think not.

The film could be sold, in Hollywood-speak, as “The Matrix meets Dogma.” Unfortunately, it is only slightly more astute than Dogma, and its narrative cannot hold a candle to The Matrix. It dabbles with symbols that are theologically meaningful, but in- stead of mining their significance, uses them as departure points for nothing more than a thrill ride through (computer-generated) hell. Gabriel and Lucifer both make appearances, for example; however, if I were the Archangel’s lawyer, I’d be preparing a defamation suit.

That said, I should mention that the undergraduate college students with whom I saw the movie seemed to thoroughly enjoy it. They appreciated the dark comic-book mood. They also knew enough of the names and places to wonder how much this vehicle might reflect their actual faith tradition. There are moments in the film when dialogue begins to shine. Constantine’s encounters with Gabriel seem to be reaching for some authentic insight. Yet, the moments are few and so quickly abandoned for the formulaic task at hand. One is left fearing for those who get the sum of their religious education from movies like these.

Entertainment in this vein need not lead one to despair. Our imagination is taken by such rich religious symbolism for good reason. Yet, the popularization of supernatural religious symbolism and apocalyptic imagery alone tells us nothing of how such imagery is thematically employed.

How can we separate out the empty calories of escapist entertainment from the nourishing efforts of filmmakers who seek to enrich as well as entertain? For that discussion, issues of thematic con- tent, narrative substance, and the formal elements of cinematic style would be apropos. The first will suffice for our purpose.

Cinema, as an emotional art form, will approach thematic questions less through ideas than through experience. This certainly allows for a conversation between film and a theology grounded in human experience as well as revelation. The issue of the relationship between present human needs and their future fulfillment, for example, is one of immediate relevance for any “audience,” and can evoke compelling discussion whether among filmmakers, marketers, or theologians. For the Christian theologian, this particular discussion would fall under the heading of eschatology. What might the producers of Constantine and a Christian eschatologist have to say to one another?

A Theology of Hope

According to some, the twentieth century saw an “eschatological renaissance” in Christian theology. Reasons cited for this shift include: renewed interest in the importance of eschatological biblical texts, a protest against the privatization of religion found in some eurocentric theologies, and the relevance of theodicy in the face of immense suffering and historical crimes. The need for theology to look deeply into the wider meaning of history seems apparent, and theologians today consider eschatology central to Christian theology.

A range of Christian theologians have attempted to reflect on common human experience in order to sense the eschatological, or “ultimate,” within that experience and to study how Christian symbols ac- count for it. Moltman’s “Theology of Hope,” with its dialectical understanding of the future’s judgment and reshaping of the present, and Rahner’s more analogical understanding of the future satisfaction and completion of human needs, are examples. In Langdon Gilkey’s landmark Reaping the Whirlwind: A Christian Interpretation of History (New York: Seabury, 1976) the basic human experience of change is examined. For Gilkey, this common experience involves a threefold pattern: the “given,” or the results of the past exerting their promising or threatening influences; “contingency,” or the response of human decision making and freedom; and, “estrangement,” or the “catastrophic,” whereby limitation, even in experiences of human progress, leads to the unresolved, which then becomes part of the “given.” The Christian experience of history offers a distinctive and credible experience of hope within this pattern. The given becomes gift, contingency becomes creativity, and estrangement presents the option for redemption.

To all of these theologians, every encounter outside of ourselves is meaningful, an encounter with ultimacy. The transcendent engages human freedom from within history. In the words of Jesus, “the time of fulfillment” draws near.

Such a view of history affirms and challenges the probing of human experience for its dramatic potential. Filmmakers, in their attempt to present credible and engaging stories, are certainly interested in the experience of change. Characters, confronted with any number of opposing forces, must summon their human resources in the decision making and struggle inherent in the pursuit of ultimate goals. Dramatists use the term crisis, in the original sense of the Greek term: a decisive point; a situation where things hang in the balance. Positive or negative out- comes are possible. Something is coming to an end, and new possibilities are opening up.

A Theology of Crisis

When filmmakers deal with issues related to human need and fulfillment, with the relationship of present to future, with contingency, crisis, freedom, and redemption, they are dealing with questions related to eschatology. Filmmakers also have some expertise in exploring those questions distinctly and concretely. Through their characterizations, they offer diverse human responses to those questions. At times they tackle the weightiest themes, and do so in a most accessible way.

One is reminded of some stunning examples in film history. Take, for example, DeMille’s 1923 version of The Ten Commandments: a modern, day story set in San Francisco, paralleled with the biblical narrative of the Exodus. The film seeks a relevant continuity between past and present, while addressing post–World War I anxiety. Lang’s Metropolis (1926) cautions us against the catastrophic results of a dehumanizing technological culture. Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957) delves explicitly into apocalyptic imagery; while his later Winter Light (1962) examines an interior crisis played out before God’s silence. Social “endings” are heralded in films like Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960). The liminality of crisis is contemplated in Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964) and Tarkovsy’s mystical The Sacrifice (1986). Allen’s existentialist Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) unveils the decisive in the common. Campion’s The Piano (1993) likewise brings us to the knife’s edge of crisis.

Such elevated examples should not prevent one from seeing similar significance in more popular entertainment. Can one sense an eschatological instinct at work in a psychological thriller like Se7en (1995) or the comic Groundhog Day (1993)? Or in a host of science fiction doomsday films where individual heroism and teamwork avert global disaster? “Apocalypse has been traditionally populist,” film historian Ian Christie reminds us. Citing the thought of Sir Frank Kermode, he states:

[Cinema] has also played an important part in the processes of secularizing and modernizing Apocalypse.…The feelings of crisis, decadence and transition characteristic of modernism have been powerfully relayed by cinema, far beyond the audience for literary or painterly modernist art; while the Terrors have been intensified and amplified to an extraordinary level by spectacle cinema. In an increasingly secular and globalized society, it could be argued that any shared sense of eschatology now results from the broad following for such cycles of popular fantasy cinema as…Star Wars, Star Trek, Mad Max…These have become the syncretic mythology of our time.1

It is in the wider context of eschatology that we can understand biblical apocalyptic literature and its use of symbol, myth, and metaphor. Such tools provide a primary language for eschatology. Its themes of destruction, judgment, and regeneration, which resonated in the Maccabean period and in first-century Asia Minor, still resonate today. This is a literature of crisis. It calls forth decision and trust. It asserts that which, ultimately, is on the right side of history and thus convicts history. In the Christian context, it reminds us that the promise of history has been revealed within history through Christ. The apocalyptic is, therefore, hope in the midst of crisis.

This brings us back to Constantine and the explicit religious imagery it employs. One might expect a film utilizing such imagery to show some accountability to the religious tradition from which it borrows. Unfortunately, as with many other super- natural thrillers, this doesn’t seem to be the case here. The film’s producers, or the source material, may have assumed the audience has no interest in, or need of, such traditional grounding or awareness. They miss the mark. How much better, and entertaining, a film could be made with that foundational awareness informing its creative choices.

On the other hand, I think of my student friends sitting in the theater with me. I imagine one thing they will remember from the film is a climactic scene in which sacrificial love is redemptive. That may be enough to redeem this movie’s shortcomings.


1 Ian Christie, “Celluloid Apocalypse,” in Frances Carey (ed.), The Apocalypse and the Shape of Things to Come (Toronto, University of Toronto, 1999), 338.

Mark Villano, a Paulist priest, has ministered in pastoral assignments across the United States. He received a Master of Fine Arts degree in film production at The University of Southern California and served as Director of Creative Development at Paulist Productions, a film and television production company in Los Angeles. Currently, he serves at St. Thomas More Catholic Center. He has been a visiting lecturer in theology and film at Yale through the Institute of Sacred Music.