"Do you know the difference between righteousness and faith?"
It doesn't exist in The Bible proper. Its roots can be traced as far back as the 15th and 16th centuries. During the Council of Trent in 1690, church reformers published a commentary on the Book of Revelations authored by Jesuit priest Francisco Ribera. In this work, Ribera created the notion of a sole, powerful entity, an evil being bent on turning people from God. This new ideology was called futurism and soon theologians were embracing and evolving it. One such man was John Nelson Darby, a lawyer turned minister. He took Ribera's work, ran it through his own manner of interpretation, and came up with the concept of dispensationalism. In Darby's construal, Christ would "come again" not once, but twice: the first would be a "secret" journey to bring his believers ecstasy. Those who were not saved would be left to serve at the hands of the Antichrist for seven years. The second arrival would be the actual Day of Judgment – Christ's eventual destruction of the Antichrist and the establishment of his kingdom. Somehow, in the modern lexicon of religious teaching and preaching, the concept never actually caught on and eventually disappeared from the lexicon.
But near the mid-part of the 80s, and as the millennium grew ever closer, individuals started considering the notion of what would occur once the clock struck midnight on January 1, 2000. They looked around the planet and saw a slowly decaying sense of civilization and enlightenment. Scholars started sensing the signs and theologians explored all the passages in the Gospels for information and support. Suddenly, this aged, arcane notion was on everyone's lips. TV ministers were predicating the actual date, while others argued that we were already in it. Hucksters hoped to prove their position with well laid out explanations, while others chose to simply use their faith as a guide. During the height of its public awareness, books were published and novels were conceived. But many overlooked one of the few films to tackle it head on. In 1991, everyone was talking about the coming of Jesus Christ. And writer/director Michael Tolkin offered up his own ideas on the end days. One of the overlooked masterpieces of the 90s, The Rapture is a stunning meditation on faith, fear and forgiveness.
Sharon is adrift. She's a telephone operator by day, a slutty swinger by night. Along with her lover, Vic, she cruises sleazy bars and cheap airport lounges, looking for couples to satisfy their craven desires. Yet through all the sex, all the sharing of intimacy and physical satisfaction, Sharon senses she is at a moral and spiritual crossroads. She wants a purpose and a meaning in life, and as she overhears some co-workers discussing religion, she thinks God may be the answer. Naturally, this does not sit well with her lifestyle choice, or with another part-time paramour Randy. Similarly lost but far more cynical about it, Randy believes that this is just a phase Sharon is going through, and that she'll eventually realize as much. But during a particularly harrowing night in a cheap motel, Sharon has an epiphany. Suddenly, she sees the light. Instantly, she is saved. Jesus is in her heart and life seems livable. She drops all connection to Vic, reconnects with Randy and moves forward. Six years later, Sharon is married, with a young daughter and an active church life. She is settled and content. Her path seems predestined. Then the trials begin. A horrible tragedy befalls her family. God then sends her a message to go to the desert and wait for Him. Taking her daughter along, Sharon camps out, waiting for a sign. Situations get hopeless, but she still believes that God will deliver her into paradise. Desperation turns to depression and disillusionment. Sharon finds herself forced into a terrible act to try and make some sense out of her pilgrimage. Even if it does come, for her, there may be no Rapture. There will be no rejoicing, only realization and regret.
The Rapture is a work of powerful ideas. It challenges the stance of traditional religious belief as it questions the concept of the contemporary lifestyle. It attempts to illustrate the epic ideas in the Final Days while it keeps its story in the personal, not the ephemeral realm. Similar to something far more mainstream like Signs, it takes events of cataclysmic scope and boils them down to a select story of individual endurance. It raises a lot of interesting issues and mandates that you, the audience, examine your own faith. The Rapture asks you to identify with and sit in judgment of a beleaguered soul in development, and wonder to yourself if you could withstand the same verdict. It contains acting performances of subtle power and unusual invention. It never talks down to or up at its audience. It doesn't expect you to know the Christian concepts inherent in the storyline, but it does provide hot button frames of reference (sexual cynicism, disgruntled employees on killing sprees, child endangerment) as a way to make the inhuman tests within religious conviction seem comprehensible. At its core, it is one woman's journey to personal enlightenment, a post-modern pilgrim's progress through the basic tenets of faith. But there is a deeper, more depressing notion to what this movie has to say. Beyond all the prophecy and puzzles, in between the testimonials and the tribulations, The Rapture seems to be asking two competing questions: Is God really worth it, and are you worth it to God?
It is easy to see why many modern Evangelicals or Fundamentalists would find flaws in this film. Director/writer Michael Tolkin takes a tough, purist stance with the teachings of Christianity, and never once backs down from some of the more cyclical areas of disagreement. Though this may seem like a very lame gross overgeneralization, the new Good Book approach to modern Christianity takes that sunny, friendly title very literarily. They overlook the struggles, the sin, and the stunning social stupidity buried in The Bible and sing a simple salvation song. Love Jesus and you will be saved. Let him into your heart and you've got a one-way pass to a super swell afterlife. Just like a Madison Avenue pitchman, there is no discussion of the fine print, no lists of rules and regulations that need to be followed to fulfill your end of the bargain. Most contemporary Christian programming (and this is NOT meant to mean ALL) is a 'donate and die' guaranteed kind of con job, a shell game for those poor lost souls who need guidance, not the metaphysical equivalent of a "gimme". The Rapture argues that there is a HELL of a lot more to belief than a simple proclamation of conviction. God demands and you must accept or reject those mandates. Sharon, played brilliantly by Mimi Rogers, is tested several times throughout the course of the film, asked to sacrifice, to suffer in the name of her Lord. Her reaction and the result are imperative to understanding the very message of this film. Those who are devoutly religious or who do not tolerate any interpretation other than their own will line up to attack this film (and this critic, assuredly) for its broad approach to the subject. But The Rapture wants to inspire more than teach, and stir it surly does.
Told in distinct, emotional movements, the events that unfold during the course of this film are meant to make you uncomfortable; pointless, shameless sex; the simple embarrassment of trying to pass one's self off as a 'believer'; the devastation of death. We begin in complete sin – Rogers and her older lover are as wanton and wayward as individuals dwelling on Earth can approach – and we end in a kind of purgatory. Throughout the rest of the narrative, we move between the ethereal and the real world, the land of inner hope and grace, and the society of sad, sick individuals. Each section of the film unfurls slowly, with Tolkin delivering devastating dialogue in long takes, full of insight and inference. Characters become icons in Sharon's struggle, principles in a mythical tale of temptation and torment. Vic is like the serpent, a devilish imp reluctant to loose his partner in perversion. Randy (played by David Duchovney with a delicate balance of bravado, bitterness and bathos) becomes an emblem of salvation, albeit on a very minor, personal level. He is the first contact Sharon has with both emotional and spiritual love. He is a connection that she just can't toss aside, even after she's become self-righteous and sanctimonious. He even provides her with a prosperous, focused life – as wife, as partner and as mother. Once he leaves the narrative, Sharon is asked to form the ultimate bond. If God is indeed coming again, she must dismiss everything else about the corporal world, including her child, to reestablish her relationship with Him. Sadly, what Sharon doesn't see is that, once she links up to the Lord, she can still have her daughter and her own deliverance. She forces her own faith into an 'all or nothing' proposition, something that guarantees only heartbreak.
As we near the end of the plot, Sharon meets the local deputy named Foster (with a name like a lost child???), a skeptical yet curious man of compassion. He seems to understand Sharon's turmoil, yet he too is enveloped in a sea of emptiness. He wants explanations. He wants answers. He wants conditionals that Sharon cannot supply. The end result of all this clash is that religion, with all its testaments and rituals has become almost crippling to Sharon. What she thought was settled is now confused. What was once clear has become clouded. Having to confront her conversion under the auspices of God's teaching (Sharon's requirement to spread the word) she suddenly realizes a whole other layer to her belief system. During this final phase of the film, the reckoning and the revelations, there are two ways to look at Sharon's final decision. One is to acknowledge that her faith was all a ruse, an attempt to fill those areas that were vacant with something more stable (as Randy says initially, some people do heroin to escape; Sharon is doing God). The last shot of the film, then, becomes a tragedy, a missed opportunity confused by an unsure foundational footing in the concept of belief and love. Sharon's stubborn understanding that there was supposed to be "more' to her change than yet another series of hardships and horrors is, ultimately, her undoing. Without giving too much away, she will always – forever – be on the outside, looking in, understanding that paradise was, perhaps, just a pronouncement away.
But you can also look at the conclusion as being very empowering. For her whole life, Sharon has been in pain. She has deadened it with sex, with skepticism, with intelligence and decadence. And maybe Randy was right. All pearl dreams and scripture-based salvation, aside, Sharon was living an addict's lie. Being born again was and is just like being a swinger: there's the secluded, secretive nature of the parameters; a club-like clique atmosphere between the saved and the damned; and a notion that through behavior outside the norm (while most people are religious, few are as zealous and ardent in their belief) you connect with some manner of higher, or altered consciousness. Sharon's agony throughout the last half of the movie is not necessarily a crisis of faith so much as a withdrawal from a disappointing drug. Everything that happens, all the crimes and punishments are nothing more than wounded wakeup calls, attempts to get Sharon to see the true nature of her conviction. So when she calmly stands and says the last line in the film – "Forever" – we can read on her face the ultimate semblance of recognition. She knows now what has happened. She sees that her faith was never heartfelt. She recognizes where her decisions have left her and, with all the weight of such a realization, she still seems content. She doesn't deserve the great reward. She is adrift, again, but this time carrying the weight all by herself. She may have avoided damnation, and can only stand outside staring into paradise, but she is satisfied. Such a humanistic approach to personal deliverance may seem to go against the thematic notions of the film, but The Rapture is not just a film about religion. No, it is more about the connection people have with faith than the parameters of faith itself.
As a director Tolkin loads the frame with carefully considered images, visions meant to fill in the ambiguous blanks he purposefully leaves in his script. The beginning of the film is formulated out of dull, earthy tones and grays, a clear sign of the secular atmosphere of this primal, physical-based world. The middle section of the film is bright and cheery, like the false sense of happiness devout believers sell on their sacrosanct television shows. By the time we get to the trials in the desert, we have returned to the realm of the muted palette, with occasional lapses into serene surreality. In the end, when the movie reaches its final compositions, we are in a dull, colorless dreamscape, a combination of rote iconography and low-budget invention. While Armageddon or the Biblical Apocalypse has always seemed like one of the most cinematic of concepts in Revelations, Tolkin chooses a more pragmatic, personal approach. We do not witness Earth-destroying events or throngs of angelic hosts. Instead, we stay centered around Sharon and her plight. Just as we have done throughout the course of the entire movie, we are witnessing situations through our own, individual pseudo-spiritual guide. Indeed, keeping Sharon the focus in the finale makes those events that much more moving and potent. Had we witnessed some manner of 'Good vs. Evil' showdown, a special effects exhibition meant to overpower and overwhelm us, The Rapture would have ultimately failed. Tolkin is not interested in selling the salvation of the planet. It would have seemed like 90 minutes of proselytizing followed by a ludicrous light show. This is nothing more than one woman's story, and it's her interaction within circumstances that carry the emotional burden of the entire film, not some attempt to bring the Four Horseman to life.
This is why The Rapture is on par with such other superior philosophical reflections on the nature of man within the scope of the universe, as 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Matrix. It is incredibly dramatic and highly deceptive. It never takes the simple way in conjunction with its narrative intentions, and always keeps the audience as an active, interested participant in the problems. There is fire and brimstone here, as well as peace and goodwill. This is an Old Testament view of a New Testament world, cast into the basic precepts of faith while trying to expose some of organized religion's frustrating uncertainties. Those who find the film offensive are free to do so. Others who dismiss it outright perhaps fail to see the point. Hollywood constantly places its audiences in those extravagant "what if" positions: what if – a giant meteor hit the planet; what if – a deadly storm wiped out humanity; what if – beings from another world wanted Earth as their new home planet, and needed to 'clean up' all that pesky carbon-based life before moving in. We accept catastrophe when it's filled with a computer-generated distance from the threat. But rarely, if ever, is the peril spiritual. The Rapture is that anomaly, a thriller of the soul, a metaphysical action film. While it may not get its prophecy and polemics completely straight, and does seem to suggest a rather depressing end for the vast majority of humanity (there is no room for Muslims, Hindus or Buddhists in this monotheistic view) it is a movie that moves both your mind and your essence. Whether you believe or chose not to, you cannot deny its impact. It is a great film.
New Line is to be praised, first and foremost, for giving fans a chance to own a copy of this forgotten classic in the DVD format. The image they provide, colorful and detailed, renders Tolkin's stylistic choices in a near flawless fashion. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer has amazing clarity with remarkable rudiments of cinematic detail. While no one would ever confuse The Rapture with some manner of visionary extravaganza, the well-crafted compositions are immaculately realized in this near-pristine print.
Presented in three separate sonic dimensions, The Rapture has a wonderful ambiance and evocative aural atmosphere. The Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS are incredible, if limited in total immersion. The breadth of the spatial situations does not really reveal itself until the final act, when Sharon enters the desert. Then the channel challenging really begins, as the wide-open horizon melds with the more personal perspectives in the film. This is especially true when the angelic trumpets begin to blast across the speakers. The remaining track, a Dolby Digital Stereo presentation, is also very good, with perfectly presented dialogue and ethereal sound effects. But in comparison to the 5.1, this basic track lacks the punch of its more sophisticated sibling.
The only real bonus feature here – unless you count the trailers for the film and other New Line product – is a full-length commentary taken directly from a previous laserdisc release of the movie. Featuring Tolkin and actors Mimi Rogers and David Duchovney (cast member Patrick Bauchau is recorded separately and inserted at appropriate moments in the discussion), this is a light and genial track with lots of joking and jests. Duchovney tends to dominate the dissertation as he constantly adds in self-deprecating comments. Rogers explains how Tolkin put her through a two week deprogramming session to reduce her buoyant, friendly personality, and the director discusses his palpable first feature jitters. Bauchau tends to add philosophical pontifications to the mix, though he does reveal that his character – Vic – was supposed to be seen in Heaven at the end of the film. At some point, everyone here engages in some serious sacred speculation, pointing to personal beliefs and interpretations to make sense of the storyline. Tolkin does bemoan the lack of a budget to really explore the imagery in the Apocalypse, but he gets lots of passionate support from his cast (they feel the limited effects approach was the best way to go). Overall, it's a fun, in not very informative track. While some may be hoping for a chapter and verse dissection of the film, the commentary for The Rapture is really more of a mutual admiration society speckled with occasional thematic sound bites.
Religion and faith are personal, almost far too much so, to form the foundation of a mainstream entertainment. Even something so readily accepted as The Passion of the Christ had a superstar figure (Mel Gibson) at its center and an exploitation appeal (the much hyped violence and gore) to draw in a usually disinterested crowd. The Rapture indeed lacks both of these elements (even though a certain TV sci-fi spook show would make Mr. Duchovney a bankable star) and yet, it's perhaps most akin to that potent 2004 portrayal of Jesus' last hours. Both films take a radical approach to their storylines, and both offer up the challenge of faith as an individual, not universal maxim. But where The Rapture deviates from the traditional religious film is that it doesn't paint pictures in clear, concise strokes. There is no finale of forgiveness or sudden appearance of Satan (and definitely not in the guise of an androgynous entity or a group of grubby children). No, what Michael Tolkin set out to do was materialize and theorize on what all this 'rapture' talk really meant. If God was coming again, what would he ask of us, and better yet, would we be ready to make the sacrifices necessary to embrace his judgment? Though it seems like the world has only gotten worse since this filmmaker forwarded his viewpoint, The Rapture is still a film as compelling and important now as it was then. We live in a strange, disconnected time. Belief can be beneficial in guiding people down a proper path. But conviction is perhaps more corrupting than ever, used as a tool to meddle in everything from politics to public opinion. The Rapture tries to explain what it means to be saved, and the responsibility to yourself and your God that said circumstance requires. The question becomes, how many people actually fit the definition. And how many really want to?
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