Monday, June 20, 2016

The Masked Saint

How difficult it is to display the simplicity and beauty of the Christian faith on film!  That is, without being didactic and heavy handed about it.  Filmmakers try and try and the result is usually well meaning, feel good pap.  Maybe they don't try hard enough.  Maybe they just don't have the skills to create a portrait of sacrifice and forgiveness that doesn't feel insulting and/or like a third grade Sunday school lesson.  For all its beautiful simplicity, faith in God, the Christian "walk" is very complex for many believers, more complex than what many Cristian writers can contrive into their tele- and screenplays.

Movies like this year's THE MASKED SAINT don't seem to get this.  It follows many other similar filmed tracts masquerading (pardon the pun here) as narratives.  I don't dare say "art".  The artistic aspirations of these sorts of movies are low because, frankly, their audiences usually aren't interested in subtlety or an honest glare into what it means to be a Christian, described by a wise person this way: "The Christian life isn't difficult, it's impossible".  They want to watch essentially good characters who spout paraphrased Bible verses or Christian cliches.  The "good" characters may be flawed, but not too much.  The bad ones need to be merely hissable, not displaying any hint of light until one of the good characters invite them to church, or better yet, ask them to accept Jesus into their heart right then and there.  THEN if a sign of redemption is evident of course that is God working.  Etc.

THE MASKED SAINT is based on the life of wrestler/preacher Chris Whaley, who I once met briefly.   He graduated from my alma mater Palm Beach Atlantic College (now University) years ago and has been at a few of their functions.  He is also good friends with another very good friend of mine, who may well be reading this review (Hi, Don!).  Whaley's story is undeniably inspiring.  Also unique as it recounts the life of a pro wrestler who decides to Answer the Call and move his family to a struggling church in a poor neighborhood far from home.  The latter part is old hat, but not many preachers can say they made a living body slamming guys wearing fluorescent tights and silly masks.  Perhaps no one other than Whaley can further say that he continued moonlighting in the ring once he took the pulpit.

Chris, who has the surname of Samuels in this movie, also uses his skills to become a vigilante of sorts, aiding ladies of the evening and robbery hostages alike.  THE MASKED SAINT maintains interest as Chris (Brett Granstaff) attempts to boost church attendance and make time for its much needed repairs (spiritual, too) while maintaining a happy home life with his wife and young daughter, and to don that mask once again.  He does not really want to get back behind the ropes, you see, but is encouraged by a feisty congregant known as Ms. Edna (Diahann Carroll, no less) to use the gifts God gave him, even if that gift is an impressive sleeper hold.  And both Chris and the church need the money.

So the movie is basically by the numbers stuff: an underdog story that follows uncertainty with triumph, then disaster, and redemption.  Other than a few moments of iffy violence, it's perfect for young children.  If you're over ten, however, you may notice how predictable and shallow the whole thing is.  Even though it's a true story, every character is painted one dimensionally, including Chris' sleazy manager, played by none other than former wrestler Roddy Piper, whose last film this was.  The writers try to create character arcs but it never felt like anything beyond, perhaps, a church play.  The production is your standard Hallmark movie, with similar scoring and just plain corny dialogue.  No swearing of course, though the elderly church organist does refer to vandals as "little turds".

I think Mr. Whaley deserved a better, more honest movie.  It didn't have to be existential and all Malick-like, but something more raw and gritty.  A film in which Chris (and his church members, for that matter) "wrestles" a bit more convincingly with his conflicts (trouble with anger, being judgmental, etc.).  Everything is resolved too easily.  Note the subplot involving the young lady of the streets as she joins the church   Even THE CROSS AND THE SWITCHBLADE felt more authentic.  Maybe someone will do justice to the story of Brother Joe Ranieri someday......
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