James Carroll, a former priest, Catholic scholar, author, and Boston Globe columnist, is a worried man. His worry is evident in every frame of the stirring new documentary Constantine's Sword, which follows the Chicago-born, Boston-based Irish-Catholic as he travels the world, listening to a range of people—a Jewish Air Force cadet, an elderly nun, a cemetery caretaker who survived the Holocaust—whose experiences with religion and politics resonate with his own complex personal history.
The question Sword asks, says director Oren Jacoby, is "When did anybody start to think that they could kill in the name of God?" A longtime documentarian whose past work includes Sam Shepard: Stalking Himself and the Oscar-nominated Sister Rose's Passion, Jacoby started seeking the answer five years ago when Carroll approached him about adapting Carroll's 2001 nonfiction book, also titled Constantine's Sword, which explores the Catholic church's long anti-Semitic history, dating back to Constantine the Great's fourth-century conquest of Rome. Carroll had envisioned the book as a PBS miniseries, but Jacoby argued that it could reach a greater audience as a feature documentary. "People are more engaged by documentaries," he says. "They want personal stories. We had to find an arc for [Carroll], in a more personal way."
The resulting film ambitiously combines multiple historical instances of anti-Semitism and conversion, from the slaughter of Jews under Constantine which led to the Crusades, to the creation of Jewish ghettos in 16th-century Rome, to the more recent attempts by Ted Haggard's New Life megachurch in Colorado Springs to convert Jewish Air Force cadets training down the road. All of this history provides the backdrop for Carroll's own conflicted personal relationship with Catholicism. Carroll's story "keeps pulling you back," says Jacoby. "Jim has that great Irish charm and ability to talk. He was very generous about sharing his story"—in particular, the painful memory of how his protests against he Vietnam War led to a severing of ties with his military dad (something he explored previously in his 1996 National Book Award-winning memoir An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War That Came Between Us).
The two men wrote the film together, their tendencies counterbalancing one another—"He always wanted to add more, and I always wanted to strip it away," Jacoby says. They organized a 300-hour shoot that lasted all fall, traveling to Colorado, Rome, and Auschwitz. Inevitably, some gems had to be cut: "There were all these great French stories," Jacoby says. "Abelard and Heloise, [Alfred] Dreyfus, and Karl Marx, who was the great-grandson of rabbis."
One story—never before reported, Jacoby points out—that did stay in the film is about Edith Stein, a Jewish philosopher who converted to Catholicism, became a nun, and eventually was sainted. When Hitler rose to power, Stein wrote letters to Pope Pius XI in 1933 asking for help, reporting on the abuses of "a government that calls itself 'Christian.'" She died in a concentration camp. Today, Jacoby observes, the site of the camp is a place of "pastoral, bucolic innocence" full of beautiful birch trees. "I want to keep surprising people, saying things are not what you think they are."
Carroll himself is visibly surprised during a visit to Rome,to see the remains of a great monument to Constantine, which Jacoby had first encountered as a teenager while attending a film program in the city (where he and fellow students, including Gus Van Sant, got a chance to watch Fellini and Lina Wertmuller at work). Not a small man himself, Carroll is dwarfed by the ten-foot-tall head; even the remains of a foot are the size of a small person.
The hubris implicit in the statue impresses Carroll, and that same hubris, which leads religion to seize power from people to this day, forms the heart of Sword. The story of the Weinsteins, a Jewish Air Force family harassed by proselytizing evangelical chaplains, offers a stark contrast to the swagger of New Life pastor Ted Haggard (before his sex scandal), who brags about his Monday morning conference call with the President and his power over America's 30 million evangelicals. While Haggard may have fallen from grace, his buddies still talk to the President, and they're still busy grooming the next generation—the youth congregations, as depicted in the film, have a particularly alarming intensity. "The scene with the kids was scariest to me," Jacoby acknowledges. "They're offering teenagers power to change the world through evangelism."
It's this repeated zooming out on the big picture and then back in on Carroll which makes Sword such a powerful film. Jacoby makes the personal not only political, but also religious and spiritual as well, showing Carroll as a courageous and passionate canary in a coal mine, a Cassandra wandering the West, trying to make sense of millennia of history and warn about what the future may hold. "After all this backlash, in 2008, we have a Republican candidate for President who goes and says, 'This is a Christian nation,'" notes Jacoby. "The Pope is coming to the White House. His business is conversion." Jacoby hopes that Carroll's struggle can point the way towards an alternative: "This is really a film about a guy who believes in peace."
Constantine's Sword opens on April 18 at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and the Quad Cinemas in New York City.