Posted on Wed, Apr. 19, 2006
Faithful filmgoers flock to 'Prophecy'
Movie aims to inspire and thrill, but does one better than the other
By Randy Myers
CONTRA COSTA TIMES
THE POPCORN set you back a dollar and was sealed in Ziploc baggies. Should you spill any while watching "The Celestine Prophecy" at East Bay Church of Religious Science in Oakland, you were expected to clean it up.
The Rev. Andriette Earl was ever so appreciative.
Admittedly, the moviegoing experience at church fails to come close to the cushy comforts of the megaplex. There is no thundering sound system, no humongous screen, no seats that recline, and the sightlines can give you a kink in the neck. Even the ticket booth looked a bit like a thrown-together lemonade stand set up in the church meeting area.
But the faithful at this screening last week didn't seem to mind the lack of traditional theater amenities. They, along with many others in the East Bay and across the nation, plunked down $10 for advance showings of "Prophecy," based on the inspirational James Redfield novel.
In the past two weeks, "The Celestine Prophecy" has been shown on DVD nearly 1,000 times in 450 churches or spiritual centers in the United States and Canada, according to publicist Corinne Bordeau. Tonight, the PG-rated film about the discovery of ancient scrolls that contain nine revelations on the spiritual condition has its theatrical premiere at San Francisco's Lumiere theater.
Redfield and his wife, Salle, will attend and introduce the movie. The couple travel from here to Seattle, Denver and other key cities to host screenings.
Despite some clumsy moments and cheesy special effects, "Celestine" is an absorbing and beautifully photographed film; told and acted -- for the most part -- with a refreshing sense of hope and compassion. The cast features recognizable, solid actors such as Hector Elizondo ("Princess Diaries"), Jurgen Prochnow ("Das Boot") and Annabeth Gish (TV's "The West Wing"), along with relatively new faces such as Matthew Settle ("Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood") and Sarah Wayne Callies (Fox's "Prison Break").
Director Armand Mastroianni never allows the film to lag. He has directed numerous miniseries and TV series; his first film was the 1980 slasher flick "He Knows You're Alone" with Tom Hanks.
Settle plays John, a laid-off teacher who travels to Peru after he learns about the discovery of ancient scrolls. Once there, he immediately becomes embroiled in a conspiracy led by the mysterious Robert Jenson (a hissable Prochnow). Jenson, along with a totalitarian police force, wants to get rid of the scrolls so more aggressive forces can continue to dominate the world.
The documents contain nine key insights with the power to lead to a new spiritual awakening worldwide. Some of this wisdom relates to how coincidence plays a pivotal role in our lives. The coincidences do start to pile up while John is in Peru, where he encounters a group of enlightened others, played by Gish, Callies and Thomas Kretschmann. His unexpected soul-searching leads to greater understanding of himself and his connections with others, especially after learning more about the insights from Father Sanchez (Joaquim de Almeida).
"Celestine" functions both as a thriller and a spiritual film. The best parts involve John letting go of past expectations; these moments are filmed with such sincerity that you can't help but embrace them. The action sequences -- there are even a couple of explosions -- aren't always done well, however, and seem silly at times.
Ultimately, "The Celestine Prophecy" proves to be a huge step forward in spiritual adventure films, far better executed than the first "Left Behind" movie. It's easy to see why it prompts introspection afterward.
The screening last Thursday night in Oakland piqued the interest of churchgoer Cathy Basen and about 60 others, many of whom are familiar with the book. The Martinez resident recalls reading the 1993 novel and being incredibly moved by it. "Prophecy" has sold more than 20 million copies.
Basen welcomes the book making the leap to the big screen and is encouraged by the spate of films dealing with spiritual matters. "I think that we're going to see more spiritual cinema," she said. "I just believe that's where we're going."
So do many others. Not only are mainstream studios making movies that deal with or mention spiritual issues, some have launched special DVD divisions such Fox Faith, now a part of 20th Century Fox.
"Everybody has jumped on it," said Peter Sealey, adjunct marketing professor at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business. "It's just a huge churchgoing population that has been ignored."
In a marketing technique that mirrors "The Passion of the Christ" and "What the Bleep Do We Know," "Prophecy's" makers scuttled expensive traditional publicity methods to spread the word about their film. They avoided most TV and print ad campaigns, and drummed up support in the nation's faith centers.
"It's really the way you have to do it," Redfield said on the phone Monday. "The old model of just buying air time and opening in a thousand theaters -- that doesn't always work."
For theatrical distribution, he partnered with Landmark theaters in California. On Friday, "Prophecy" will expand to the Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley.
What will attract people to theaters, Redfield expects, is strong word of mouth generated at church and other advance screenings.
The metaphysical "What the Bleep Do We Know" fashioned a similar campaign and went on to make $11 million. Other recent religious-themed fare targeted the faith community, including the $290-million blockbuster "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," the missionary drama "End of the Spear," Tyler Perry's $63-million and still counting comedy "Madea's Family Reunion," and the Mormon-themed "Work and the Glory: American Zion," the second in a trilogy.
More spiritually focused films wait in the wings.
The powerhouse known as "The Da Vinci Code," with Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou, is expected to jam theaters when it opens May 19, even further intensifying dialogue about the speculative relationship between Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene. Other films such as "The Omen" remake, slated for June, touch on the dark side of faith.
Probably the most blatantly religious film to be released by a major studio will be the Mary and Joseph pilgrimage story "Nativity" with Keisha Castle-Hughes ("Whale Rider"). Not so surprisingly it is due out in December.
Spiritual-themed movies appear to be striking such a strong chord with audiences because many feel uneasy about the times in which we live, Redfield said.
"Part of it is that when the world looks shaky, people start looking for deeper meaning and deeper grounding in their personal lives. The whole quality of life movement has a spiritual component where we want to slow down and look for quality ... we want to look for deeper meaning."
Today, much more often than in the recent past, the spirit does seem to be moving Hollywood into action.
Randy Myers is the Times movie critic. Reach him at email@example.com or at 925-977-8419.
• WHAT: "The Celestine Prophecy"
• STARRING: Hector Elizondo, Jurgen Prochnow, Annabeth Gish, Matthew Settle, Sarah Wayne Callies
• RATING: PG (some violence)
• RUNNING TIME: 1 hour, 39 minutes
• WHERE: Theatrical premiere 7 tonight, Lumiere, S.F.; opens Friday at the Shattuck Cinemas, Berkeley
• GRADE: B-
• ONLINE: Join a discussion about religious-themed movies at www.contracostatimes.com.