It is a film that asks you to look within yourself, to think about its messages long after the credits end. And yet it is also stiff and clumsy, with unnecessary plot maneuvers, mediocre dialogue, and grim action sequences that conflict with the film's gentler themes.
The movie is a remake of the 1986 film "L'Inchiesta"/"The Inquiry" (the Italian version of the new film keeps the original title; an unneeded "Final" was added for its American release). The Roman emperor Tiberius (Max von Sydow) witnesses the sky turning black and the ground shaking, which, it turns out, may have connections to the recent crucifixion of a certain Judean rabbi and omens of a new kingdom on the rise. The emperor sends for once-exiled investigator Tito Valerio Tauro (Daniele Liotti), who is ordered to go to Jerusalem and, using his analytical mind, deduce just what's going on with the missing body of Jesus of Nazareth.
The adventure plays out as a politically charged mystery, with Tauro encountering a bevy of colorful characters: the corrupt Pontius Pilate (Hristo Shopov, who played the same role in "The Passion of the Christ"), the hardened prosecutor Saul of Tarsus (Fernando Guillén Cuervo), and Simon Peter (Enrico Lo Verso), the humble fisherman who leads the new followers of Jesus. Intrigue is matched by Tauro's keen mind - when Pontius Pilate attempts to pass off a random corpse as the body of Jesus, the Roman is quick to see past the ruse, with deductive skills that turn the film, if only briefly, into "CSI: Holy Land."
Those in power are eager to convince Tauro that Jesus was a fraud. And Tauro, who honors logic over religion, is initially convinced that the rabbi was just another trickster - although his scientific eye also keeps him weary of those who would deceive him too far to the other side (as the fake corpse scene indicates).
Which leads to the most curious scene in the movie, in which Tauro is drugged against his will and buried in a tomb for days, all to prove how the resurrections of both Lazarus and Jesus were hoaxes. This sequence actually works, in a way, in debunking Biblical legend, and I'm reminded of a similar moment in the classic epic "The Ten Commandments" in which Rameses offers thorough scientific explanations for the plagues, using sound reason to shoo away thin claims of "God did it."
Like that scene, the fake-resurrection sequence in "The Final Inquiry" works to illustrate how faith stands in defiance of logic. The believer will take such evidence, and reply with a hearty "yes, but..." As the film progresses, Tauro is taken back by those he encounters, people whose faiths are unshakable, even by his relentless pursuit of the rational.
Liotti delivers a strong performance in the central role, and Andrea Porporati's screenplay contains enough pauses to let the viewer soak in the thematic questions. But the script also fumbles, tripping itself up with flat, lifeless dialogue that fails to inspire, over-the-top bits of ancient politicking (a rambling finale that involves the murder of Tiberius and the rise of Caligula is a total groaner), and a romantic subplot that's not only horribly out of place, but wholly uninteresting.
This romance is a leftover from the original film, and it should have been toned down. While making his rounds, Tauro meets and falls for Tabitha (Mónica Cruz), a devout Christian. Their relationship is ultimately too vital to the overall story to dump (it is the love for Tabitha that leads Tauro to Christianity), but it never works. The scenes the two share together are straight-up soap opera nonsense. An overwrought storyline featuring Tabitha's cruel, unbelieving father (F. Murray Abraham) is a campy mess. And its resolution is not only a cheat story-wise, but it also goes against the very themes of the film itself, offering a miracle for the Roman to witness when his character's internal journey demands an absence of visual proof.
Director Giulio Base is a veteran helmer of Italian television, and he handles this material with all the cheesiness of a movie-of-the-week. (Indeed, the movie was originally a TV miniseries; what we get here is a condensed theatrical version.) While he's eager to let the beautiful sets and lush production design bring us in to convincing, eye-catching Biblical times, he's more eager to trump the look of the thing with cornball moments that leave eyes rolling.
Worse, the film takes a few pauses to haul in some completely pointless action sequences. Perhaps inspired by the violence of Mel Gibson's "Passion," or the large-scale battle sequences of such modern sword-and-sandal hits as "Gladiator," "The Final Inquiry" pumps in a brutal (if bloodless) battle sequence early in the picture, then punctuates the rest with random acts of brutality. Dolph Lundgren is cast as Tauro's beefy bodyguard, perhaps to give action movie weight to the picture. (For those chuckling at the thought of the B-grade action star in such a role, stop laughing - his quiet performance as the loyal servant is actually one of the best things about the movie.) These scenes contrast too much with the rest of the film. They simply don't belong here.
And this leaves "The Final Inquiry" a bit too much of a mess to actually work as a thoughtful religious film. The ideas are there, and they are worthy of attention, but they are too often hidden behind ham-fisted melodramatics. It's a good movie stuck inside a bad one.
Video & Audio
Fox has provided us with a watermarked review screener and not final retail product. As such, I'm keeping with DVD Talk policy and refraining from commenting on the video quality. This review will be updated accordingly if final product is ever received. I can inform you that the film will be presented in its original 1.77:1 format, with anamorphic enhancement.
Update 3/21/08: Fox has finally sent in a final retail version for review. The widescreen transfer is quite stunning, showing off all the work that went into the film's lush look. There's a great amount of detail on display, and the balance between the subdued browns of the cities and desert and the rich colors of the palaces is finely handled.
The film's soundtrack is reminiscent of classic spaghetti westerns, as the Italian actors have had their voices dubbed into English. (And, I assume, the English-speaking cast had their lines dubbed the other way for the Italian release.) Since the dubbing (heard here in a solid Dolby 5.1) was intended by the filmmakers, I won't complain about it being the only audio option provided. Optional English, Spanish, and French subtitles are offered.
Click on "Trailers" and you'll be taken to a menu offering only one trailer (for the embarrassingly titled thriller "Thr3e"), which makes me wonder if Fox knows how plurals work. A promo for the Fox Faith line and previews for "Amazing Grace" and "The Music Within" play as the disc loads (but are not accessible from the menu itself). All are shown in non-anamorphic letterbox. No other extras are included.
More forgiving audiences - those of you willing to look past the numerous flaws in the story and its production in order to get to the moral center of the piece - will do fine to Rent It. With any luck, when it's over, you'll spend more time talking about the themes of the picture and less about the picture itself.