Film looking at Purim story adds to the faith-based trend
By Tom Tugend, JTA Global News Service of the Jewish People
LOS ANGELES, Oct. 6 (JTA) - " 'Christian money makes Jewish film' - that's the headline I'd like to see above your article," Matthew Crouch, producer of "One Night with the King," suggested in an interview.
The film, based on the Book of Esther from the Purim holiday, "brims with adventure, intrigue, romance and wonder," said Crouch, the son of mega-televangelists Paul and Jan Crouch. "Its vision is to inspire a generation to embrace the destiny God has for them."
"A pumped-up Purim story," observed a rather less enthusiastic Rabbi Richard Levy, Los Angeles director of the School of Rabbinic Studies at Hebrew Union College.
"A Night with the King" - which, despite its somewhat titillating title, contains nary a hint of sexual abandon or even cleavage, opens Oct. 13 at nearly 1,000 theaters across the United States.
As a warmup to the premiere, Crouch and his co-producer and wife Laurie barnstormed 21 cities in 16 days, pitching the film and its message to clergy of all faiths.
The movie has aroused considerable advance interest in Hollywood and elsewhere, particularly as a major entry in the burgeoning genre of Christian-produced films aimed at "faith families," including some 75 million evangelists in the United States.
Crouch himself is one of the pioneers in the field, who mortgaged his house to make the 1999 "Omega Code." Launched without the usual mass-marketing campaign, the film found an astonishingly large audience among churchgoers.
But what really rang Hollywood's bell was the phenomenal box office in 2004 success of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ."
"It took Hollywood a few years to catch up," said Kris Fuhr, vice president of Provident Films, but "Passion's" $612 million worldwide gross did wonders to speed up the process.
Fuhr's own company has just released "Facing the Giants," billed as an inspirational film about a small town high school football team whose six-year losing streak is reversed by faith in God.
"Giants" was made for $100,000 by an all-amateur company of writers, cast and crew from a Baptist church in Georgia, but expects to find an audience by mobilizing a national network of pastors.
The first major studio to finally get the message is 20th Century Fox, which has created FoxFaith, a new division that plans to produce about a dozen Christian-themed movies this year.
Significantly, major studios and distributors are joining up with the independent producers of faith movies, with Samuel Goldwyn Films partnering with "Giants" and Rupert Murdoch's Fox studio handling DVD sales for "One Night."
Jewish organizations by and large haven't weighed in on the rapid growth of the Christian film phenomenon. An exception is Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak of the Los Angeles-based www.JewsonFirst.com , who sees the faith films as an encroachment by the Christian right on schools and popular culture.
On the other hand, Rabbi Daniel Lapin, president of Toward Tradition, thinks"One Night" will have a "positive impact" and urges potential Jewish critics to "stop being so prickly."
Lapin, a Seattle-based ally of Christian conservatives, said he was consulted by the filmmakers on whether certain depictions in "One Night" might upset Jewish sensitivities.
Among other rabbis and Jewish spokesmen, who had seen previews of all or part of the movie, opinions varied on the film's artistic merit. The general consensus was that while the storyline departs in some details from the biblical original, the film provides a positive portrayal of Jews.
Most enthusiastic was Rabbi Harvey Fields, a veteran leader in Los Angeles interfaith relations, who praised the movie as "beautifully done and artistically end emotionally very satisfying."
He lauded the filmmakers for omitting the final portions of Megillat Esther, in which the newly empowered Jews take bloody revenge on their enemies.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said he liked the film and "felt comfortable with it."
Foxman, one of the sharpest critics of "The Passion of the Christ," said "One Night" "is not the gospel and it's not a documentary, but I found nothing offensive or troubling."
Most critical was Hebrew Union College's Levy, who described "One Night" as "a dull movie that has little to do with the Book of Esther."
He strongly objected to a promotional flier attached to preview DVDs, which described Esther as "an orphan minority," but never mentioned her Jewishness.
Crouch, 44, who founded Gener8Xion Entertainment company in 1993, promotes his picture and message with biblical fervor, but still keeps a sense of humor.
At one point in a lengthy interview he pithily summarized his movie as "Cinderella Meets The Lord of the Rings." Later on, he told of his futile attempts to persuade Hollywood moguls to make more pictures reflecting "family values."
"I stood before them like Moses before Pharaoh and said, 'Let my people go to the movies,' " he quipped.
Crouch denied that the film was a subtle means of proselytizing Jews.
"The Esther story predates Christ by 500 years, so there is no connection," he said. "This is a life-affirming movie with a message of dignity and love.
"I coined the expression 'faith family,' but that doesn't mean I make movies to bring people to the Christian faith," he said. "It means that I make movies that do not violate anyone's faith."
"One Night" was shot at an old majestic palace in Rajasthan, India, and made on a $20 million budget. That's not a great deal by Hollywood blockbuster standards, but is the most expensive of Crouch's productions, with an added $6 million for marketing and advertising.
The movie's publicity makes much of "stars" Peter O'Toole and Omar Sharif, who get their names above the title - and may lead some to expect a reprisal of their masterful collaboration in "Lawrence of Arabia" - but it's a bit misleading. Sharif has a substantial through not leading role as an adviser to the king, but O'Toole gets only about 15 seconds of exposure in a time-wrenching prologue as the Prophet Samuel.
The cast includes Luke Goss as Persian King Xerxes (better known as Ahasuerus in the Book of Esther) and John Rhys-Davies as Mordechai. Jewish actor James Callis makes a satisfyingly evil Haman, Tommy Lister is a notable royal eunuch and Israeli actor Jonah Lotan portrays Jesse, a childhood friend of Hadassah, the name of the heroine before she became Esther.