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MOVIES : OFF-CENTERPIECE : Test Screenings for Those Who Answer to a Higher Authority

“The Rapture Is Coming,” reads the promotional tag line for the Fine Line Features film that brings visions of the apocalypse to theaters Oct. 4.

Also coming soon, perhaps: A potential religious controversy--a la “The Last Temptation of Christ,” if on a far smaller scale--over the movie’s handling of evangelical Christian tenets. Already, at least one theater chain has refused to book the picture because of its content.

“The Rapture” stars Mimi Rogers as a phone operator who, following a series of reckless sexual encounters, reaches out to God and becomes “born again.” Her zeal for “the end times” promised in the Book of Revelation, however, has tragic results. In a fashion, the movie has it both ways: Rogers’ character is clearly deluded, yet the supernatural events she believes in begin to take shape in an escalating series of bizarre twist endings.

Aware of how writer-director Michael Tolkin’s offbeat thriller crossed into heretofore taboo spiritual territory, Fine Line (the “art-house” division of New Line) recruited several different groups of Christian laypeople and theologians for research screenings in L.A. and New York earlier this year, in addition to the usual mixed test audiences.

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Results, says Fine Line president Ira Deutschman, were “all over the map,” even among the same religious demographics. Viewers lauded or denounced the complex picture for often contradictory reasons, from some nonbelievers “who thought it was not only a pro-Christian movie but too pro-Christian” to some “born-again” Christians who found it “incredibly offensive and blasphemous.”

Local writer Todd Coleman set up a screening for 26 evangelicals (most in the film business themselves), who even prayed together before the movie unspooled. Initially, he says, Fine Line “thought this was a movie that Christians would really go for,” but his results showed otherwise.

“A few people liked it, but when asked point-blank, ‘Is there any Christian audience for this film,’ virtually all of them said no,” recalled Coleman of his screening. “They actually really liked some of the film and thought it was pro-transcendental faith, but what was disturbing to people was the mix of what they considered biblical truth and wildly unbiblical ideas. People were upset that Christianity was portrayed as a cult, and by what they considered New Age-isms"--including a boy prophet character and secretive group visions of a mysterious pearl, along with a violent plot turn that occurs near the film’s climax.

Rebecca Chaney, a magazine editor with Campus Crusade for Christ, is recommending that Christians go see the film--not because she liked it, but because “it’s good for Christians to experience how we’re misperceived by others. If this is intended to represent mainstream Christianity, then it’s way off the mark. We must not communicate very clearly what we believe if it’s so misunderstood.”

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Deutschman, who said Fine Line is trying to sell the picture as an intellectual/theological horror film, or “Close Encounters of the Religious Kind,” contends as many Christians have applauded the film as condemned it.

“The people who seem to (care about) the film the least are people who don’t even think about religion and God, and who just find discussion of those issues to be incredibly boring. Whereas anybody who has any thoughts of it whatsoever on any end of the spectrum, who has any spirituality in their lives at all, appears to either love it or hate it, in wildly unpredictable fashion.”

As far as any “Temptation"-style hoopla, Deutschman said Fine Line has no intention of deliberately stirring it up. “There’s certainly no reason for us to be courting controversy, because if anything it may serve to muddle the message of the film even further. With Martin Scorsese’s film, it was easier for people to understand what the controversy was really about than it would be with this,” he said. “But I’m not sure there’s much we can do to avoid it if it turns out people genuinely do take offense to it.”


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