Great films about ideas are harder to find than weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But unlike G.W. and his cronies, us critics at least know we’ll get lucky from time to time. You see, great films about ideas do, in fact, exist! (And we don’t even have to kill anyone to see them.) “Chapters and Verse” is one such film about ideas, but it’s far from great. That’s okay though, I’ll take an intelligent, mediocre film that wants to provoke any day over bottom-feeding dreck like “Van Helsing”. As written and directed by self-professed atheist, vegetarian, and human rights activist, Michael Cardinal, “Chapters and Verse” feels only marginally like a film and much more like a forum for his “radical” ideas on theology, specifically Christian theology. And that’s both its greatest strength and weakness. In the era of “The Passion’s” box-office bonanza, it’s refreshing to see passionate propaganda come from the other side of the fence as well. Sure, Cardinal will likely never command the audience Saint Mel and his pal J.C. do, but damn it if he’s not gonna have his moment on the soapbox too. What he may lack in filmmaking chops, at least as on display here, Cardinal more than makes up for in sheer spunk.
Cardinal’s soulless (and shameless) treatise on atheism, vegetarianism, and tolerance begins as three uptight Christians seek refuge in an old church after their van has broken down. The three Christians, named – get this – Christian (Daniel J. Wilson), Adam (John Mafoutsis), and Christine (Joy Nash), are brought in out of the rain by the compassionate Father Jacob (Ryan Jacobs), who happens to be in the middle of counseling three troubled women, Lark (Tabatha Caldwell), Gwen (Aubrey Chandler), and Robin (Nicole Henry). It’s not long before “Father” Jacob is revealed as not a priest at all, but rather a flamboyant homosexual! And his three “troubled” patients, why, they’re nothing but a couple of lesbians and a woman with a “sordid” past!! But worst of all, what makes them really the devil incarnate, is that they’re devout, card-carrying atheists… who live in a church!!! Christian sees this as the perfect opportunity to carry out their benevolent life mission of spreading the Word, while Adam sees it as a chance to bully his righteous Message into the heathens. Christine, meanwhile, finds herself oddly intrigued by the contented “pagans” and their liberated lifestyle. Over the course of one strange night, Adam and Lark viciously debate such topics as the origins of Christianity, the existence of God, and the nature of sexuality, among other popular barstool topics. When one of the atheists mockingly wonders, “Who would Jesus do?”, we just know Adam will go ballistic. We’re just not expecting the level to which he actually does.
As fairly sympathetic as I am to Cardinal’s ideologies, it’s hard for me to champion a film that awkwardly, shamelessly inserts a gruesome clip from a slaughterhouse if for no other reason than to inspire guilt. Cardinal’s awkwardness with the medium is evident throughout the film, from the confusing opening scene, which seems like it was taken from a bad horror film for no apparent reason, to its unconvincing and sloppy denouement. The acting is satisfactory at best, with John Mafoutsis hamming it up as the spiritually riled Adam and Joy Nash channeling Anna Nicole Smith as the dopey Christine. Perhaps by design, only the cheeky Ryan Jacobs and the assertive Nicole Henry turn in respectable performances as Jacob and Robin, respectively. But the level of acting has less to do with the actors themselves than it does with the lifelessness of Cardinal’s script. As I said before, “Chapters and Verse” is less a film than an excuse for Cardinal to be “provocative” by posing such “profound” theological inquiries as, “Who made God?” and “Is fulfillment possible without organized religion?” Hmmmm, I might actually lose some sleep tonight pondering those brain ticklers. Mr. Cardinal, in all seriousness, few people are as fascinated by such theological questions as I am. But even “The Da Vinci Code” had a decent plot and characters you could (almost) care about, as opposed to your cardboard stand-ins. And, on the other side of the coin, at least “The Passion” had Monica Bellucci. The point is that ideas, while much appreciated in a work of art, do not necessarily make great (or even good) art in themselves. Like, dare I say, Michael Moore, you’re clearly a voice that needs to be heard in this ever-depressing election year, so I’ll forgive (and likely forget) this effort and await your next ideological barrage with great interest.
(Author’s note: No Christians were harmed in the writing of this review.)