Justin Fatica has a cross to bear, and last year he did it in front of more than 60,000 American teens. The 27-year-old self-proclaimed prophet is hellbent on "raising up warriors for the Lord," and finds his recruits on the fraying edges of the MP3 generation. In "Hard as Nails," an HBO documentary by David Holbrooke (producer of the documentary "The Trials of Henry Kissinger" and son of former U.N. ambassador Richard Holbrooke), Fatica's MO is more akin to the "Scared Straight!" phenomenon of the early '80s than the traditional Roman Catholic sermons he grew up with in Erie, Pa.
The pumped-up proselytizer—he looks more like a white rapper than an evangelist—sports a tough Jersey accent and a swagger that would make Tony Soprano proud. He screams, taunts and humiliates half-filled rooms at spiritual retreats across the country, hoping to "motivate" teens into accepting Jesus into their lives. Though his ministry, called Hard as Nails, is aimed at Catholic teens, he sounds like an evangelical. His tactics include drill-sergeant-like assaults: "If you sin, you better have the courage to bash Jesus' face in!" Fatica screams at one cherubic girl, pushing her to the verge of tears. "Have you sinned in the last 24 hours? Have ya?! HAVE YA?!" Fatica wants his disciples to feel the pain that Christ suffered for their sins. At one session, a kid picks up a metal folding chair and whacks Fatica—at his direction—on the back, as the minister repeatedly screams to another supplicant, "Jesus took all this pain for you!" He re-creates Calvary, ordering teens to carry heavy crosses up a hill, or asking them to stand, arms extended against the wood, while their peers pound the cross with a hammer and scream insults.
The film rarely challenges Fatica's unorthodox approach, though there's a scene near the end where the diocese of Burlington, Vt., bans Hard as Nails. Elsewhere in the Catholic community, he's able to raise money to expand the organization (at a single benefit dinner in a private home, he nets $30,000) and is even invited to Barbados to spread his aggressive version of the word. But the most telling part of this documentary comes when Fatica visits Mom and Dad at their affluent lakeside home. His street demeanor and religious zeal seem so out of place that even his middle-of-the-road parents are at a loss to explain their son's religious fervor and career path. His father claims he's just happy that his son—once a failing high schooler—has found a way to make a living.
Fatica is more intriguing than he is likable. He has the ego of a demagogue, raging one minute, hugging the next, then testifying passionately about his own life changes (he claims he was "cured of masturbating" by working out three times a week). There are rare moments when we can relate to Fatica's own struggles—but it's the kids' stories of sexual abuse, depression and bullying that prove most moving. It's difficult to know if Fatica truly helps these vulnerable teenagers in the long run—but who's brave enough to challenge this warrior for Jesus?