Tuesday, March 01, 2005

The Rapture: Doing The Cinematic Limbo Rock

The DVD cover claims that The Rapture goes where few films dare to go. Straight to heaven. Or, for lead character Sharon (Mimi Rogers), straight to hell. Well, almost. The technical definition of "rapture", according to Webster's is "A state of experience of being carried away by overwhelming emotion" or "A mystical experience in which the spirit is exalted to a knowledge of divine things." The latter context relates to the end-of-the-world musings purported by fundamentalist Christianity.

For Sharon, a disaffected phone operator ("Business or residence?"), robotically tied to a soulless job by day, and an emotionally deadening nightlife of detached promiscuity (picking up nameless couples for sexual escapades), the end of the world is an every day event. An anonymous voice, timed for delivery as she gives out phone numbers to a blank public from a darkened cubicle, Sharon is modern day apathy incarnate.

Several of Sharon's co-workers form a secretive enclave, whispering amongst themselves. Overhearing the group speaking of their dreams of a smooth, seamless pearl whirling in a luminous void, Sharon finds herself drawn to them. Summoning up her courage and putting on a casual air, Sharon approaches the clique, only to be rebuffed: "You haven't seen the pearl. You can't fake it." The group explains that these are the last days of the earth as they allude to the guidance of "the boy", a young, black religious prophet whose visions predict the advent of armageddon.

Two christian missionaries visit Sharon's apartment and she plays along with their intentions, revealing her underlying hedonism. When the evangelists proclaim “You have to believe [in Christ]. If you don’t, you go to hell," Sharon unabashedly announces "“Well that doesn’t seem fair.” Sharon responds ascerbically when she again questions her furtive co-workers. “There are five billion people on the planet. There’s I don’t know how many religions. Why does some god of some little country of the Mediterranean have to be the god of everyone? Isn’t that a little arrogant? I mean really! The Buddhists get along OK without Jesus Christ. The Hindus get along OK without Jesus Christ. The Muslims seem to be getting along OK without Jesus Christ.” The co-workers' curt response is "But none of them are saved."

Returning to her clandestine nightlife, Sharon plunges into despair. After a round of personal degradation, an attempted suicide, and visions of the pearl, Sharon seeks salvation via religious conversion. Approaching a former sex-partner, an atheist named Randy (David Duchovny), she extends rebirth to rescue. Randy tosses aside Sharon's newfound spiritual insights with terse skepticism. "The world’s a disaster. We have no power to make it better. You hate your job, you hate your life, but you want to feel special. Instead of letting me do that, you’re rushing off to something that's not even there...It's just a drug. You’re in pain. Instead of doing heroin, you’re doing God.” Nonetheless, Randy yearns for human connection, the two become romantically involved, convert to Christianity, wed, and give birth to a daughter, Mary (Kimberly Cullum).

Following Randy's murder at work by a disgruntled employee, Sharon flees to the desert with Mary, recreating Christ's forty days and forty nights spiritual quest. Certain that the second coming of Jesus is imminent, mother and daughter pitch camp and wait for the apocalypse. Befriended by patrolman Deputy Foster Madison (Will Patton), who provides blankets and candy, Sharon remains detached, staunch in her affirmation that the Rapture is near. As their resources dwindle and it becomes clear that the earth's life-span has been extended, a desperate Sharon steals food from the drive-up window of a burger joint. When Mary suggests that she and her mother simply die and go to heaven to be with Randy, Sharon says "Let's give God one more chance."

Disillusioned, embittered, exhausted, and feeling utterly abandoned, Sharon views her situation as hopeless and shoots Mary in the back of the head. When Deputy Madison stops Sharon as she speeds down an interstate at 100 MPH and asks where Mary is, Sharon breaks down, tearfully explaining that she had to kill her because as a murder victim she would be allowed into the kingdom of Heaven. Conversely, according to Sharon's assessment, she could not take her own life (though she nearly does) as suicides are not allowed through St. Peter's Gates and she must wait out her time to be judged during the impending final hour or face an eternity without a heavenly family reunion.

It is at this juncture that director Michael Tolkin could have taken a rationalist's way out by passing Sharon off as a religious zealot gone mad. Surely the dreams of the pearl, the belief in the words of the child prophet, the religious conversion, and the ultimate collapse of faith are symptomatic of a bi-polar personality in need of Zoloft. But the apocalypse indeed arrives and The Rapture lifts all, including Sharon, toward judgement in a mid-realm Purgatory.

Criticism of sparse Special Effects aside, the minimalist depiction of the apocalypse is aptly mysterious and foreboding. Sharon, who stops her ascent to Heaven through sheer self-will, finds herself in a literal void where she must pledge loving allegiance to God or face an eternity in limbo. When Mary's spirit appears to Sharon and Foster, the child asks "Do you love God for giving you the gift of life?" Foster answers in the affirmative and promptly vanishes as his soul is transported to Heaven. But Sharon, ever defiant, questions God by asking Mary "Why should I love a God who would allow me to destroy the one thing I loved the most in life?" Sharon's implication that humans are God's toys, consigned to blind faith, is bolder than most earthly feminist contention. And the consequence of her final decision reaches the historical core of theological debate.

It is surprising that the Religious Right did not seek to have The Rapture banned as it could be considered the ultimate in cynical anti-religious propaganda, a sort of pedantic paganist blow to the Christianity of Mel Gibson. The Passion Of The Christ plays on the viewer's agonized emotions as aroused by the sight of Jesus's sadistic torture at the hands of his executioners, underscoring the temporal impact of salvation through martyrdom. The Rapture depicts the brutal but unsuccessful bludgeoning of the human spirit's right to challenge the rules of the soul as decreed by the Creator. Thus in Passion Of The Christ the martyrdom of a spiritual entity, while in The Rapture, the martyrdom of a human entity. Technically imperfect but ideologically compelling, The Rapture poses paradoxical questions about the ultimate questioning of authority.

(Mimi Rogers enjoys the company of a pre-X-Files David Duchovny in the 1991 Fine Line film The Rapture)