Dark Nights Of The Soul

If religion is the opiate of the masses, as Marx said, then why isn't Hollywood out peddling the stuff from every street corner? If movies were all we had to judge from, one might never suspect the enormous resurgence of religious faith in this country. The one thing that moviegoers rarely encounter on screen is much talk of God, discussion of religious identity, any whiff of theology. This--certainly not sex--may be the last cinema taboo. There are myriad reasons, noble and ignoble, for this omission. Perhaps the simplest is that most people who make movies in this country belong overwhelmingly to the secular culture-skeptical and humanistic. Rare is the secular artist who is willing to make the imaginative leap of faith to tackle the subject of faith, to visit the other America where God is as woven into the everyday fabric as television, shopping coupons and tension headaches.

The nerviest thing about The Rapture, Michael Tolkin's outrageously uncompromising first film, is that its central relationship--a love/hate one--is between its born-again protagonist and God. Though David Mamet's Homicide isn't a religious movie, it's about a secular New York cop who, in the middle of a murder case, abruptly undergoes a Jewish identity crisis. The perception that both Tolkin and Mamet intuitively share with true believers is that modern man feels a void in the soul and is desperately looking for something to fill it.

Sharon (Mimi Rogers), the convert in "The Rapture," is a Los Angeles telephone operator who spends her tedious days in a cubicle endlessly dispensing numbers. By night she cruises bars with her Eurotrash buddy (Patrick Bauchau), picking up couples for group sex. Bottoming out in the dark night of her soul, she finds Jesus and joins a sect that's obsessed with prophecies of Armageddon. They await The Rapture, the moment when the Saved will ascend to Heaven at the end of the world.

This may sound bizarre, but it gets much wilder and more painful as Sharon, six years later, and driven by tragedy deeper into fanaticism, journeys to the desert with her daughter (Kimberly Cullum) to await what she believes is The End. And then the movie makes its final, transcendentally bonkers leap into the apocalypse itself. Lurid as this may all seem, "The Rapture" is neither an exploitation movie, an expose, a horror film nor a psychological portrait of a delusional woman. It's a genre unto itself-call it theological film noir. Tolkin neither condescends to the religious experience nor endorses it. But his unnerving movie is built on the assumption of God's existence and Armageddon's imminence. The chilling conclusion--in which Sharon argues with a cruel Deity--is designed not to comfort anyone. Both believers and skeptics must swallow Tolkin's bitter pill.

The Rapture" is far from perfect, but it's a riveting act of provocation. The taut, incisive first half works better than the later stretches. Tolkin, a novelist, hasn't always found images as eloquent as his ideas, nor did he have the budget to save his special effects from B-movie tackiness. But the film's icy passion is wonderfully embodied in Mimi Rogers's unflinching performance. She's never had a role more demanding, and she responds with a haunting, fierce portrayal. Love this movie or hate it, you haven't seen anything like it.

The same could be said for Mamet's dark and devious film, though it transpires in the more familiar movie world of cops and crime and conspiracies. It's not quite the real world, however; it's Mametland, that gritty, aggressive, masculine universe looks like reality but sounds like the theater, where every pungent insult and staccato phrase is savored by the actors like a holy wafer. "Homicide," artfully shot by Roger Deakins, is the most visually fluid of Mamet's films ("House of Games," "Things Change") and it shares with his other films a relish for the kind of old-fashioned, rat-tat-tat plotting that entraps its hero (and the audience) in its steel claws.

Bobby Gold (Joe Mantegna at his best) is a police detective in a city rotting with drugs and racial tension. He's a Jew, but his identity is formed by his job, and his loyalty is to his fellow cops, especially his partner Sullivan (William H. Macy). Hot on the trail of a violent drug dealer (Ving Rhames), he stumbles onto another case--the murder of an old Jewish woman who runs a variety store in the black ghetto. The woman's politically well-connected family wants Gold on the case, because he's Jewish. They think her murder is part of an anti-Semitic conspiracy. Gold dismisses their worries as paranoia.

Things change. It wouldn't be fair to give away too many of Mamet's twists and turns, which are fun in themselves. Suffice it to say that Gold is forced to confront his own Jewishness, that he encounters a mysterious cabal of Jewish freedom fighters and that he is radically altered by the experience. But now his loyalties are painfully divided. Mamet follows this tale to its bleak and bitter conclusion, in which the trusting team player is ultimately cast in a traditional Jewish role he hadn't counted on, the eternal outsider.

Scene by well-crafted scene, Mamet holds you in a tight grip. But this movie is troubling. His intricate murder mystery plot may be overdetermined-it doesn't leave enough room to satisfactorily explore the richly suggestive themes of identity, loyalty and betrayal. Gold's transformation seems willed by artistic fiat. The bleakness of his ending is a kind of intellectual cop-out: it reduces all that we've seen to hollow ironies. "Homicide" plays like a house afire; what it adds up to may be less than it seems.